A Debate About Nothing

Nothing_512_512While Reading Matthew Ratcliffe’s “Feelings of Being” I came across this interesting passage about a criticism of Martin Hiedegger’s use of the word “nothing” by Rudolf Carnap.  Below is a brief paraphrase of Ratcliffe’s passage and short observation about the practical questions and insights hidden in the passage.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote often about “nothing.”  And by “nothing” Heidegger meant “something,” or the very real experience of a lack in our felt sense of the world.  Nothing is a kind of felt experience prior to actually voicing the word “not.” The word “not” is something less than the more originary, felt, sense of absence upon which it is based. “Nothing” is a kind of something, no less a reality because it may only be felt, or experienced.

The classical definition in philosophy of “nothing,” however, prior to Heidegger’s meaning of the word meant something like: “it is not the case that entities of some kind occupy some place.”   To say “it is not” is to offer a proposition. But a voiced proposition is not a felt sense of nothing.

Philosopher’s trained in logic attacked Heidegger on the grounds that his meaning of “nothing” as a kind of “something” flies in the face of logic.  One such philosopher, Rudolf Carnap, argues that Hiedegger’s meaning of “nothing” makes sense to some extent only because the reader associates the word with its everyday uses, thus “giving the text a feeling of meaning.”

Carnap thus accuses Heidegger of “kindling feelings in the reader, of the kind that a musician or artist might hope to evoke…”

Perhaps music is the purest means of expression of the basic attitude because it is entirely free from any reference to objects. The harmonious feeling or attitude, which the metaphysician tries to express in a monistic system, is more clearly expressed in the music of Mozart…metaphysicians are musicians without musical ability.

Those are Carnap’s words cited in Ratcliffe’s book on page 58.

If I’m Heidegger, I’m thrilled with this criticism.  It’s interesting that from the cold perspective of logical philosophy, music, poetry, or performance, is seen as mere “feeling kindling.” As if feelings are nothing.  It’s as if feeling are not seriously understood as THE CENTRAL driver of much of choice, action, and behavior.  At the core of every one of our purposes from the most mundane to the most profound, whether it be to grab a snack, or work late daily so as to be recognized for a promotion, or apologize to a friend, or convert to Judaism, is the hope of pursuing a feeling, an experience.

There is a real kind of suspicion of feelings and emotional life in U.S. academic culture.  If a person is richly expressive in idiosyncratic ways, or deeply emotional ways, or different ways, people are less likely to appreciate these avant-guard expressions as meaningful and serious but as mere “poetry,” as the kindling of feelings or the expression of feelings kindled. Interestingly, the same kind of attack of suspicion has been charged against those who suffer mental illness.  In a book about the limits of language to capture personal mental suffering the author writes:

[The]…writing of schizophrenics can only be seen as a-rhetorical, simply data: the test, the record of symptoms…At best, it is seen as music, as poetry, as some personal expression that has no bearing outside of itself, no transactional currency…If people think you are crazy [or have been in the past], they don’t listen to you. (Prendergast, 2001 pp.202-203)

A person who may be suffering likewise is somehow robbed of having their words not taken seriously, as if they were so how unable to enjoy the normal meanings in words.  In the book The Body In Pain, the author says as much when she writes:

When one speaks about ‘one’s own physical pain’ and about ‘another person’s physical pain,’ one might almost appear to be speaking about two wholly distinct orders of events…For the person in pain, so incontestably and unnegotiably present is it that ‘having pain’ may come to be thought of as the most vibrant example of what it means to ‘have certainty,’ while for the other person it is so elusive that ‘hearing about pain’ may exist as the primary model of what it means ‘to have doubt.’…whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language…physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned…It [pain] resists objectification in language.

The thing is people who suffer can and do use language to express their suffering and often only through the “music” of metaphor. Today book shelves are filled with autobiographies about people suffering mental illness, and terminal illness.  Often they express themselves only through metaphorical ways.  But just because it is in fact a “metaphor,” does not mean that it is not “real” or is somehow only a “test-record” of symptoms.  The FEELING is its expression.

Likewise with the critique of Heidegger’s use of the word “nothing.”  The “feelings kindled” as everyday use of the word meets against his idosyncratic use ARE its expression, its very real and meaningful expression. Unlike the logical philosophers who are content with building arguments with words, we can be attuned to feelings as meaningful in themselves.

Jonah Hill Teaches Us About Communication

JonahHillMay10In a recent turn of events, celebrity Jonah Hill was caught on video hurling an offensive word to a harassing photographer.  According to this article, Jonah Hill is on Arguably the Most Sincere Celebrity Apology Tour Ever, in a fit of frustration at being followed and verbally harassed by a photographer, he said: “Suck my dick, you faggot!”  TMZ ran the video and predictably Hill offered his apologies to the LGBTQ community.  The right thing to do.

But there are a few things to learn about how our culture understands language and communication from this article and Hill’s apologies.  The title of this article describes Hill’s apologies as “the most sincere celebrity apology ever.”  Why? Because as they write:

“The most significant in all of this is Hill’s acknowledgment that the context and what he meant by the word –a word that, like so many of us, Hill probably heard hurled with impunity throughout his teenage years, just by virtue of being a dude — simply does not matter…In a culture so often dominated by ‘I’m sorry that you found it offensive..’ semi apologies, Hill’s response seems admirably, disarmingly genuine.”

Interested in how someone who has studied language use and communication understands this publicly expressed sentiment about Hill’s apology? Feel free to read on…’cause here I go. What I will demonstrate and illuminate is a strange contradiction in our everyday understanding of language use, particularly what happens when we are speaking in the heat of the moment and wanting only to express how we feel in that moment through words.

So Hill’s apology has been established by this article as a sincere one.  That “sincerity” is grounded in the fact that he made no distinction between words and context.  That is, he made the claim that words have meaning regardless of context.  A word, is a word, is a word.  An offensive word is even more “wordy” that most other words.  They are so heavy and thick with historical meaning that to utter them is to speak a taboo word, literally to unleash evil and ugliness into the world in a way not unlike unleashing a rabid caged tiger.

In an apology on the Tonight Show, Hill says,

“If someone says something that hurts you or angers you, use me as an example of what not to do.  And don’t respond with hatred or anger, because you’re just adding more ugliness to the world.”

Hill’s moral advice for one’s own personal mental hygiene here is spot on.  No need to respond to hate with hate.  Agreed.

So here is a quick consideration for you: How can we achieve this ability to “not respond”? How can we develop the ability to delay our immediate reaction to offensive words? This is how: rethink how we think about communication.  That is, can you ever be offended by someone’s words if you feel deep down that “words are not meaningful in themselves” and that communication is not a “linear process of sending and receiving messages?” What if instead of believing that we can “get lost in heated moments” or that “others words can ‘hurt’ you,” you considered how your own interpretation of that other person’s words is being interpreted (by you) in just such a way that your own use of language to “punch back” those feelings of frustration (again, which you’ve created) seem to makes sense as a response to that person?  Because Hill has a very simple view of communication, what he expresses above is toddler logic: You hurt me, so I’m going to hurt you.

If we want to learn how NOT to respond to others’ hurtful words, then we would do well to learn about those interpretative processes at work just below our awareness that allow others’ words to seem meaningful in themselves.

So the first contradiction here is that Hill wants to not respond to others’ hurtful words, but because he understands words as meaningful in themselves, as simply offensive and communicated by others in a linear way, he is powerless to ever truly achieve the ability to not respond.  Some words are just “ugly.”  A word is a word is a word.

But Hill is not completely clueless about language use, however.  He also says:

“I said the most hurtful word I could think of at that moment.  I didn’t mean this in the sense of the word.  I didn’t mean it in a homophobic way.”

This is a great insight by Hill.  He is acknowledging that he used that word in a way that expressed his own hurtful feelings and not in the way that word’s meaning is usually used as a slur to a specific group of people.  I mean we don’t even know the sexual orientation of the photographer. If he was gay, then this truly was an act of intentional slur hurling.  But, if he is not, then this use of the word “faggot” is something else.  Based on what we actually know from this article we can conclude the following: He wanted to think of a word that would hurt the other person to the depth of pain and frustration Jonah felt in that moment.  And, Hill, knowing well that the word “faggot” is a deeply painful for the people in his life (he is close friends with gay people and has close gay family), he used that word as a response he felt in the moment was the most satisfying of the feelings he wanted to express.  He did NOT mean it in a homophobic way.  I agree. Context matters.   All speech is accomplished within some context without which nothing could ever make any sense.  Language and context are inseparable.

But then he continues on to say:

“I think that…that does not matter, you know? How you mean things doesn’t matter. Words have weight in meaning.  The word I chose was grotesque.”

Hill is here saying that context does not matter.  But not really, if you read carefully.

(Now, a quick note before I move on: I am not saying that Hill is trying to consciously hide something from us, or that he is using double speak, or that he is trying to pull a fast one.  I truly believe he means what he is saying, he just does not clearly have awareness of the larger contradictions here in his reasoning). 

Ok back at it…

When Hill says that “I think that…that does not matter,” he is referring to the “context” of why he said what he said.  Words, he says, have “weight in meaning.”  Totally agree here.  He seems to be saying here: a word, is a word, is a word.  He seems to be saying that the context does not matter.  What he cannot seem to see, however, is that the “weight in meaning” in the word “faggot” is the reason why in this context Hill chose the word he did.  He wanted to say something he knew would be hurtful or a fitting response to how he interpreted the other person’s “hurtful” words. Hill had something like a speech plan that was enacted when he felt frustrated.  And the culmination of that “plan” included saying a word that he know is “grotesque” and hurtful in other contexts (that is, for other audiences, LGBTQ persons in his family and friends).  If Hill was unable to recognize at some level of awareness that language and contexts are inseparable, that that word is hurtful in other contexts, then he’d never had been able to craft and complete such a speech plan.

And yet…Hill says that context does not matter.  And this article likewise calls his apology the “most sincere” because he makes no appeal to the context of what he said.  In short, in Hill’s and this article’s perspective, he “owns up” to his use of a absolutely offensive word, a word whose meaning is set in stone regardless of context.  But without an understanding of context of language use, especially of the word “faggot,” then Hill would never have been able to “chose a word” he knew was “grotesque” and use it towards a member of the paparazzi (note: not an LGBTQ member) to punctuate his own internal feelings of hurt.  Moreover, without some understanding that language and context are inseparable, this article would be unable to praise and offer its self-righteous approval of Hill’s apologies because of Hill’s claim: that a word, is a word, is a word.








You Don’t Know Me

10035In his book, The Transcendence of the Ego, Jean Paul Sartre writes: “My I, in effect, is no more certain for consciousness than the I of other men.  It is only more intimate.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

Among other things, Sartre is telling us that we cannot claim to have any special knowledge of ourselves in the sense of being unbiased knowledge.  We do in moments of reflecting on ourselves, however, have a more intimate awareness of what is going on for us.

But that is just it: “what is going on for us.”  That “us” is an imagined relationship between yourself with yourself. This is what makes any unbiased view of ourselves an impossibility.  We do not have an objective perspective on who we are or what we are up to in life, but we do feel we have a very close and intimate relationship, and hence knowledge of, ourselves.

So how can we use this information to help us in someway to achieve a better life, a better world, or a better mood?

For Sartre, there is no “self.”  You do not exist as some kind of finished thing, the way a chair or a rock might be said to exist.  You are existing, as in with an “ing.”  You are, if you are alive, always an unfinished process in the making. You are a verb, an event, a party, a festival on two legs.  This is freedom.

For Sartre, we often forget this because this “freedom” means being of “our own making” and this creates so much inner anxiety that we choose to imagine ourselves as mere things whose moods, motivations, desires, are pushed and swayed by external events.  We find it hard to live with the full weight and knowledge that we choose what we value, our attitudes, our beliefs, and even our moods.  We live, in short, by a dependence on “external” factors we deem as powerful influences upon our lives, often viewing events and other people as causes of our experiences of life.

With so much at stake in hiding from our freedom, is it any wonder we get annoyed and defensive when someone attempts to pull off the cozy veil and show us how we have defaulted ourselves?  Those who would remind us that we do not know ourselves as well as we think are seen as rude and inappropriate. Today I hear “don’t judge me” and “you don’t know me” as two of the most popular cliches in everyday talk when someone is told some “truth” about themselves that they do not agree with.

Look, there is no “truth” in anyone’s opinions about you.  You are, as Sartre says, an unfinished project and thus to name or label a person or to uncritically react to those names or labels is really more like reacting to what you are not rather than what you “are.”  But nonetheless, ever notice that when it comes down to it, if you like the opinions people have of you, then you’ll experience their opinions of you as truthful and may even feel warm and fuzzy in their company.  If you dislike the opinions people express about you, then you’ll experience their opinions of you as false and feel a need to call them names or defend yourself.  Being so invested in hiding from yourself, you’re more likely to connect with those who can keep you in your comfortable bubble and avoid those who challenge that comfort.

If you believe, as I do, that knowing yourself is vital to maximizing your life and living towards that life you want, then wouldn’t you want to have some outside, unbiased, view of what you are REALLY up to?

Have you ever expressed wanting a fulfilling life, a life of excitement, deep love, amazing friends, and great success? Have you ever expressed this desire either to yourself or others? And have you ever felt frustrated at the current lack of that kind of meaning in your life? Have you felt stuck on how to get there? Have you ever felt uncertain that this wonderful life you aspire to will ever come true?  Have you ever felt the disconnect between what you want and your current experience of life?  If Sartre is right, then its not more self knowledge that will help move you forward.

As you turn inward to figure out why you are stuck, or what is holding you back, or what is going wrong for you, do not let the fact that you have a close and intimate knowledge of those explanations and justifications fool you into thinking you actually KNOW what is going on for you.  You likely do not know.

Maybe this is what the great writer Antoine de St. Exupery meant when he wrote something like, “if you seek to understand people, begin by never listening to them.”

So What Do You Do?

Luckily…There is a way to cultivate a more “unbiased” view of yourself.  Really simple: You look at your actions. Look at what you actually do as opposed to what you might think you are doing, the ideas you have of your motives, and the beliefs about why you do what you do.

Say you want more excitement in your life.  And there you are at a local coffee shop, sitting at a table reading.  In walks one of the most attractive women you have ever seen.  Do you walk up to her and ask her how here day is going and see if she is someone you would like to learn more about? Or do you do something more safe and just admire her from afar while you inwardly beat yourself up for not taking action?  What would you have done if you were REALLY committed to bringing more excitement in your life?

Say it’s 8pm and you get a call from a friend inviting you on a late roadtrip that leaves within an hour.  But you have just settled in for the evening, just about to sit down to watch your favorite show and eat an amazing spaghetti you just finished preparing. Do you pack up your things and go, or do you take a more comforting path and politely decline?  What would you have done if you were REALLY committed to bringing more excitement in your life?

Your actions…that’s the stuff.  Your actions, not your thoughts or the explanations you know so intimately are the key to knowing what is going on for you.  It is a subtle shift in focus that can make you aware of a more primal form of self-knowledge than focusing only on the knowledge of your biased thoughts.

There are other things you can do to get more “unbiased” too.  What if you developed friendships with people who also are in to assessing their lives in terms of what they DO rather than what they know, can explain, or justify about their lives? What if you had a community of people for whom being open and honest was an absolute necessity?  What if you had friends you trust to really and truly open yourself to and can thus welcome the criticisms of others, feeling not defensive but thankful for gaining insight into areas of your life that you are perhaps too close to see clearly? What if instead of seeking out friendships with others that reaffirm the nice socially acceptable avatar you have crafted, you seek out those who can call you out on your own bullshit, or when you have failed to live up to your own freedom?

In the end, it seems Sartre is able to help us see the difference between being focused on our thoughts as opposed to being focused on our actions.  One pathway is by nature an inefficient one because a turn inward can only give you more information about yourself, from within yourself.  This is hardly a very efficient way to really know what is going on for you.  The other pathway allows for you to measure your own self-talk about what you think is going on for you and what you desire against your own actions of what you actually do.



What I Did When I Felt Like Shit

FacebookPost19I couldn’t shake this feeling.  Like I was just, “off.”  I felt tired, listless, but also anxious and worried.  I knew I had things to get done, especially writing a draft of one of my dissertation chapters.  I’ll be heading out to Venice Beach soon for some much needed rest.  But if I do not finish a draft of this chapter before then, that’s really going to cut in to my ability to feel relaxation.  And yet, knowing all of what is on the line if I choose not to work, I could not get motivated.

At times I felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that lay ahead that I would simply not even try to get started.  I could not make sense of this.  To make matters worse, I caught a cold mid week.  The timing of this was the worst.  I had actually just begun a new visualization meditation practice that had brought me into a very focused state.  And then…bam! Runny nose, itchy throat, fatigue.  I chose to sleep, to rest, rather than continue to try to work.

After fighting off my cold in record time through meditation and rest, I still could not regain that focus I had just prior to getting sick.  I spent the rest of the week in a funk.  If there was a scale between 1 – 10 that measures feeling “alive” and “present,” I was hovering right at 0.  This funk affected every area of my life.  I could not enjoy the company of friends.  I was easily annoyed by strangers.  I just lay around on my couch working halfheartedly on other projects that were “easier.”  I could not feel any kind of connection to the greater vision and purpose to which I have set my life. I felt just numbly “there,” without fire, without heart.

How did I get here? Well, to answer this question for myself, I took a good honest look at my actions not my thoughts or ideas about what was the “cause” of this funk.  I just looked at what I was DOING.

I noticed that I simply stopped taking action.  By not working on my draft I became preoccupied with thoughts about what I needed to get done. It zapped my emotional energy and I did not even notice it.  Moreover, because I was not taking any kind of purposeful action towards a singularly important project, I felt completely without direction.  It’s hard to know where you are if you are not moving in any one particular direction.

How do I know that not taking action was the source of this “funk”?

Simple: I took action.

Today I began working on the draft of my chapter once more.  Almost instantaneously, I could feel a renewed focus.  And after writing for the day (I only wrote for about 2 hrs), I began to feel an energy, an inertia that instantly put me back on track.  I felt together.  I felt present.  And, most importantly, I felt a sense of renewed purpose.

One of the things I’ve learned from this experience is that waiting to “feel right” before taking action is a highly inefficient way to approach motivation.  Motivation does not happen when you feel good, but is like a fire that builds up only through action.  I also learn that this feeling of “funkiness,” of listlessness, of directionlessness, is a signal or signpost that I must do “what needs to be done.”  Like the great Japanese psychotherapy school of Morita, “doing what needs to be done” is a pathway towards renewed purpose and selfhood.

There is of course much, much more that makes action a productive solution for me, like having a very clear idea about how I want to be in my world, what is at the core of my desires, as well as having the ability to train my focus on the process of my journey rather than its outcomes.  But those living ninjitsu skills have taken a little over three years to cultivate…

When I feel like shit, its a sign I am not doing what needs to be done and THAT is exactly what I need to do to regain my focus and purpose.