On the inescapable nature of the self

Experience is wholly unique. Your experience of life is hugely different from mine, and the same goes for each person. We can only experience life through our own body, our own person and self (if such a thing exists). There is no way of completely escaping subjectivity while conscious. Many things ‘take us out of ourselves’, such as music and sport, yet they do not relinquish subjectivity as a whole. In this sense, our subjective experience is always with us while conscious, and complete objective experience is not possible. This circumstance can be interpreted in different ways: it can appear to be wonderful, as our consciousness allows a unique way of life to be experienced, yet it can, contrastingly, appear to be troublesome and undesirable-sometimes we may feel a need to exit our own experience of life, maybe because we are not in a sound state of mind, or because loneliness has taken over and we wish to be able to experience something with another conscious being fully. Both of these, however, are mere interpretations, and the self can be seen in different lights. Yet it is clear that our conscious experience has limitations-we cannot experience the past again, nor can we experience what the future holds, and it is this which we do not like to accept-we feel somewhat powerless because we cannot change what we did yesterday and we cannot know what will happen tomorrow. Likewise, it is difficult, at times, to accept that only we can experience what we are experiencing right now, and that others’ experiences are, ultimately, inaccessible to us in their utmost being. This is not, however, something to be distraught about, but is rather something that must be accepted. The self is inescapable, but it does not follow that this is necessarily a problem. At times it may even feel like a blessing.

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A New Year

New year expectations always seem to be somewhat unrealistic. We seem to want to change ourselves so much over such a short period of time that when we realise that our hopes and expectations are not becoming a reality in the time we wished, everything collapses and we fall back into the old habits we so desperately wished to remove or replace. Heraclitus, one of the most notorious pre-Socratic philosophers, wrote that everything is in a state of change except change itself. We ourselves will change, whether we will it or not, and so it is not whether we change, but how we change. You can never become the person you once were, yet what is possible is that you begin to become the person you want to be, yet to do this it is necessary to start directing change in a positive direction at a pace that is realistic and attainable-‘once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed’ Schopenhauer. A sprint will not get you to the top, but a steady jog will, and once you reach the summit, things will become easier and easier.

Change

Change is inevitable. As long as time exists, change will exist too. We will, as people and as beings existent in the universe, change constantly. We must determine not that we change but how we change, for good or for bad. As the New Year draws near, change is at the forefront of many people’s minds. Change can involve planning, hard work and sacrifice, yet it can also involve laziness, impulsivity and apathy. Change can be active or passive-we can let ourselves be changed, or we can change ourselves.

It is not enough to plan positive change-it must be actively pursued and ascertained. Perhaps one of the greatest aids to positive change is that of the goal (the telos, the end, the purpose). A goal provides a ‘why’ for what you are planning, and therefore gives reason and purpose to your actions, so when asked ‘why are you doing X?’ you can reply ‘because Y’. Without knowing why you are doing what you are doing it seems almost inevitable that change will become passive.

Killing time

‘Every human activity is a tack for killing time.’ Thomas Ligotti

 

Time passes inevitably. Change occurs whether we like it or not. That is what time is-a measure of change. The way we use and manipulate time determines how our lives turn out. Time, then, is the greatest resource for a human life.

Ligotti’s idea is one of existential nihilism, that everything is essentially useless, and that human activity leads to nothing. Objectively this may be to some extent true: time does pass and eventually all human endeavours will come to nothing. But that is not all. While the human race exists, our endeavours are still meaningful. They still affect ourselves and the people around him-what happens now and the effects that current events and actions have, must not be overlooked. Everything becomes redundant at some point, but human activities still have meaning while they are around to be experienced. Life is not merely killing time, it is using time which is passing and perishing in the best way you think.

 

Eudaimonia: Aristotle and happiness

The Greek word eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) is usually translated as ‘flourishing’ or ‘welfare’. This was, to Aristotle, the highest good (summum bonum). But how, especially today, can we reach this highest good?

Aristotle linked eudaimonia with virtue (here meaning ‘excellence’) and reason. For him, eudaimonia entailed virtue and activity, particularly intellectually stimulating activity, since Aristotle believed that reason (logos) is unique to humankind. Of course, however, activity can be mental or physical, since there is practical reason as well as mental reason. Virtue is, for Aristotle, necessary to attain eudaimonia, yet is not enough, since activity of some kind must be involved which attains success by virtuous means. There are, however, other things that appear to be depended on if one desires to achieve eudaimonia. These are goods external to oneself, such as friendship and beauty, and Aristotle would doubt that eudaimonia could truly be achieved without these kinds of external goods, which means that attainment of ‘flourishing’ seems to involve, to some extent, an element of luck.

How can we apply this to our life today? C. D. Ryff defined eudaimonia with six parts:

  1. Self acceptance
  2. Personal growth
  3. Purpose in life
  4. Autonomy
  5. Environmental mastery
  6. Positive relations with others

Not only must be at one with ourselves, we must have good relationships with others. Of course, a definite purpose is necessary, otherwise we will find ourselves wandering around aimlessly as if in a dark room. It is no doubt the case that although we rely on personal circumstances, it is up to us to attain eudaimonia. If we want it, we must concentrate on what we must do to get it, and discover for ourselves what we must implement and what we must remove from our lives.

Choose

It’s hard to face the fact that the time we exist on earth will not enable us to do all the things that we may want to do. For some of us, perhaps this is the case, but for most of us, there are many various things which we would like to do with our lives yet do not have time for, or we just aren’t able to do them because of the packed and full lives we already lead. This is not easy accept, yet it is a reality which must be faced. Life is not short, it is long compared to a lot of animals, and we do have time to dedicate ourselves to certain vocations. It just depends on what those things are. Recognising that we will not be able to do everything we would have hoped to will allow us to realistically and rationally decide what it is that we are going to do with our life. Decide what it is you want to do, then, if you can, do what it takes to get where you want. If we all wanted something bad enough, we could get there and attain our goal. It’s not really about the brevity of time, it’s about the use of that time. If there’s something out there which you have consciously and determinedly decided to pursue, all that’s left to do is to pursue it. If you believe that pursuit is truly worthwhile, very little will stop you. If you can’t do it because of little things such as wanting more sleep or watching more TV, then you don’t really want it. First and foremost, people get where they are because that is they wanted. It all depends on what you want, and how much you want it.

On being normal

More and more often have I recently heard people telling each other they’re not ‘normal’ or asking ‘why you can’t you just be normal?’ The tone is always a slightly insulting one. The thing is, being normal is overrated. When someone says ‘be normal’, what they’re really saying is ‘be average’. Yet it shouldn’t be like this. We shouldn’t be telling each other to be normal, first because the concept of normal is a societal norm, formed by the culture we live, and the consumerist, social-media ridden society we do indeed live in is not something, I believe, to be hugely proud of. Second, because we are not normal. None of us are. However much we might like to convince ourselves that we are or can be normal, that is just not who we are, and a denial of this is, really, a denial to be truly human. This is because humans have strange thoughts, think things which would be considered to be strange or nasty or wrong. We are complex creatures with many opposing and conflicting ideas and beliefs floating around in our subconscious. We are not ‘normal’ and we never will be. We must accept this and move on. Instead of being good at being normal, we should try to become our best self. What that is, no doubt, is another question altogether.

Happiness: Utilitarianism

Happiness is hard to define. Moreover, there are many different definitions and opinions of what happiness is, and many believe happiness to be a totally subjective state, and that each person’s definition of happiness is different to the next person. Over the next few posts I will be looking at different philosophical views on happiness and pondering on what is, if there is one, the ‘best’ definition of happiness. This post will deal with the philosophy of utilitarianism.

To the utilitarian, happiness is, fundamentally, the maximization of pleasure and the minimisation of pain. Furthermore, the goal is life, says the utilitarian, is happiness, which is reached, as the founder of utilitarian thought Jeremy Bentham put it, by using your means to ‘create all the happiness you are able to create’ and to ‘remove all the misery you are able to remove.’ Pleasure is good, pain is bad. A happy life is full of pleasure, whereas a miserable one is full of pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is called Act Utilitarianism, since each individual act is scrutinised on the basis of pleasure and pain to decide whether the act is right or wrong-the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is what makes an act right. However, this process can lead to disastrous consequences.

John Stuart Mill built upon Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism by creating a Rule Utilitarianism which bases the rules of a society on the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This way, Mill thought, there could be trust present in society. Moreover, Mill. unlike Bentham, distinguished between types of pleasures, arguing that there are higher (exempla gratia-reading) and lower pleasures (e.g. alcohol). Mill has received criticism for this distinction because this difference makes his theory an elitist theory, rather than a universal one. As well as this, Nietzsche attacked Mill by saying that people have different needs to be happy, and called him a ‘blockhead’ for such an ignorant generalisation.

Peter Singer, a notorious contemporary utilitarian, argued in favour of negative  preference utilitarianism, a form of utilitarianism which holds that pleasure is the absence of pain, and that happiness comes from having one’s preferences satisfied. Again, however, his views have been met with controversy and a questioning as to the genuine moral nature of his and all utilitarian thought.

Utilitarianism bases happiness on pleasure and pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is itself generally rejected, yet Mill’s Rule utilitarianism has influenced our society to some extent, and his view that our own happiness stems from seeking the happiness of others is worth keeping in mind, since it may be that if we want to be happy, we must first want the happiness of others to occur. In this way, parts of Mill’s philosophy are selfless and Mill’s ideas of cultivating good human beings is an idea which has influenced different schools of thought and society up to the present. Singer said that ‘my interests cannot, simply because they are my own, count more than the interests of anyone else’ implying that the interests of all those concerned in a situation should be taken into account. It is difficult, however, to always know what the ‘best’ interest is in such situations. Singer has had profound effects on the idea of wealth and poverty and his book ‘Practical Ethics’ is one of the highest selling ethics books of all time. There is, though, another form of utilitarianism, that of G.E. Moore, which is ideal utilitarianism, and this denies that the goal of life is to maximise pleasure. Rather, Moore said that it is friendship and beauty that should be pursued since they are intrinsically good.

The question we must ask ourselves, it seems, is whether our goal is to maximise pleasure and minimize pain, or whether there is something else about life which is worth attaining. Yet, what is it if such a thing exists? And is it a universal goal, or do we each have our own, individual and subjective path to happiness? Is happiness even attainable? These questions will be deliberated upon in further posts.