Sunday, 7 November 2010

Aristotle, Heidegger, and the for-the-sake-of-which


In Aristotle, ethics begins with a question: how should I live my life? This question is the most fundamental question, the most fundamental problem. Only through a for-the-sake-of-which can action make sense. To bring substance out of this statement, Julie Annas gives the example of playing tennis, an action which does not make sense in itself but only in reference to a for-the-sake-of. The particular for-the-sake-of against which the act of playing tennis makes sense could be that she wishes to be fit, or that perhaps she desires to become a professional tennis player.

The point is that actions by themselves are devoid of meaning without a nexus of significance in which they take place. This is why Aristotle begins with taking a stand on oneself, and not with the solution of what to do when making particular choices. By asking what kind of life you ought to live, you are not simply asking a question, but framing the region of being in which your questions and actions are possible at all. Having a for-the-sake-of-which is therefore a matter of the utmost significance for human life, which implies that ethics cannot even possibly begin with the solution of particular problems, as those problems would not even be problems without first taking a stand on yourself!

If this claim seems odd consider the following; would it be a problem for you as to how best to throw up a wall if you were not a carpenter? Would it be a problem for you as to how to change nappies if you had no intention of becoming a parent? Would you spend your days pondering wave-particle duality had you not some interest in the physical world? In order for us to go out and discover things about the world we live in, we must first have a motivating principle, “how should I live my life?”

As Heidegger points out though, a for-the-sake-of-which need not be a stand you have rationally taken upon yourself. To borrow the examples Hubert Dreyfus gives, you may assume being a “mummy’s boy” or being an older brother, you did not thematically decide to take that stand on how you should live your life, you were just socialised into them. So there is a distinction between the two thinkers in that Aristotle thinks ethics begins with a rational decision you make about yourself, whereas Heidegger would perhaps say that the stand you take on yourself does not necessarily have to be rationally or even consciously assumed.

The difficulty with Aristotle’s account is that he is absolutely correct in saying that we must take a stand on ourselves in order for our actions to make sense. But Aristotle thinks that only rational choices are proper actions. This is a difficult claim. Aristotle is assuming that for an action to make sense we must be consciously aware of the ends towards-which we aim. But as Dreyfus points out, we may have any towards-which (getting in the car, driving to the destination, parking next to his building, getting out of the car, heading up to his office etc.) of which we are not explicitly aware. Indeed he goes as far as to say that our conscious mind can be focused on something completely different and we may find we have arrived at our destination, surprised that we’re here already.

So a towards-which (which only makes sense against a for-the-sake-of-which, so in this case Dreyfus says that the reasons why he did all of those things was ultimately related to his being a teacher) does not have to be goal orientated. In John Searle’s account of action, which is broadly analogous to Aristotle’s in this case, actions must be motivated by an intention, and then carried out as an intention in action. Having an intention in Searle’s sense implies having a goal in mind – but as we will find soon enough if we go about our daily dealings, we seldom have these goals in mind. A towards-which, therefore, isn’t an explicit, conscious goal, but rather a way to satisfy an ultimate for-the-sake-of-which (which as we’ve seen, also need not be consciously assumed).

There are also differences in how the two deal with what it is which determines a for-the-sake-of-which, and thereby avoid infinite regress. Aristotle believes that there is a terminal good which we desire, a good which we desire in and of itself. As we desire the ultimate good in and of itself, we do not require any further qualification for assuming it as a for-the-sake-of-which. Heidegger’s account is much different. He believes that taking a stand on yourself does not fall into a linear infinite regress, but rather eventually comes up against nothingness. It is through an aversion to this nothingness that action is motivated, and as we experience ourselves without purpose we are thus motivated to discover a purpose (the discovery of which projects the truths your life will yield). This is what motivates the selection of a for-the-sake-of-which.


"If the purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world." - Arthur Schopenhauer (Essays and Aphorisms)

It seems absurd, even incomprehensible that our lives lead inexorably towards nothingness. Changes occur every day, things come into our lives, and things pass away from our lives. We toil endlessly, constantly striving to achieve ends, to achieve a happiness which always seems a step away. We wait weeks for a package to arrive, only to forget all about it, once opened, and begin desiring something new. We build, and build, and build, only for the ebb and flow of the universe to wipe it, and us, away.

Schopenhauer insists that human life is a mistake, and a worthless mistake at that. Schopenhauer sees pain as the positive, that which is tangible, and pleasure as mere release from pain. We notice only the place where the shoe pinches, but not the healthy whole body, he writes. Our lives are goal oriented, we must always have a purpose. Once a desire is satisfied, we must then create a further purpose.

If we neglect to find another goal then we experience boredom, the primary condition from which all activity essentially springs: the naked essence of existence, which is, alongside transiency, for Schopenhauer, the indication of life's worthlessness. When we are not seeking purposes which will ultimately disappoint us, we are "delivered over to boredom."

"What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? All that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome." - Friedrich Nietzsche (The Antichrist)

We might ask if Schopenhauer's estimations were entirely in order. Certainly we can all sympathise with his judgements with regards the futility of striving to possess happiness, and that boredom is that seedling from which activity ultimately springs. But must we agree with his insistence that this renders life as worthless?

I think not. The reasons underlying Schopenhauer's evaluations are, I believe, a misappropriation of where to create meaning in life. Becoming, not being, is the aim of life - life, as Nietzsche says, continually overcomes itself. We may understand boredom, and the feeling that our endeavours will be, in the long run, fruitless, but we do not have to take these as given.

But in spite of the conditions of nihility which face us, we are nonetheless free to assume an attitude towards life which does not want to rest in the stale satiety of satisfaction and its closely related cousin boredom. We want to find activity wherever we can, and not simply to crave ends in themselves, but rather the process by which we arrive at them. We can demand of ourselves that we never remain beings, but rather becomings - processes which never end, and are never satisfied.

The appropriate response to nihilism is, in my eyes, an absurd affirmation of life and a veneration of activity. If we are doomed to never be satisfied with the ends for which we aim, then we must apply value to the struggle we endure to get there. We must seek strife, not satiety. How-to's, not where-to's.

"As soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die." - Martin Heidegger (Being and Time)

But have we solved the absurdity of life in the face of death? As Heidegger relates, it is our being-towards-death which makes us understand the finitude of our existence, the limits on our possibilities. It is the anxiety resulting from this understanding which inspires us to act and to create, in spite of death. Death ought not to be a negating force, but a force which demands us to live right now.

The dual forces of anxiety in the face of death and boredom in the face of emptiness paradoxically create fertile ground by which to cultivate a mode of being which affirms life, rather than rendering it as worthless. If we had not the prospect of life passing us by at every moment, and if we could be satisfied with emptiness, then what reason, besides the biological necessity of survival, could there be for action? For poetry, music, philosophy, film, or the novel?


But as we’ve gone over, in Heidegger’s view a for-the-sake-of-which need not be consciously motivated. Aristotle certainly didn’t overlook this, but his leaning towards conscious, rational thought as the only origin of genuine choice in turn urged him towards believing that the decision to act in a certain way in a certain situation would have be conscious if it was to be ethical. To elucidate this point further, we see in Plato it is not enough to simply do good deeds, but one must know why they do those deeds. There is a passage towards the end of Book III of The Republic which notes that merely legislating and regulating the course of a people’s actions is like trying to “cut the head off a hydra”, because you are not killing the beast itself but the phenomena which depend upon the beast (i.e. the actions and not the disposition to perform those actions). He proposes a system of education which will engender a sense of why an action is correct, and therefore minimal legislation would be required because people know what is right to do. As people all desire the good, they will therefore act on the basis of their understanding what good is.

But what is not considered is that a decision has already been made, when a for-the-sake-of-which was made possible (i.e. it “showed up”) it showed up for a reason. The world must be in a certain way, says Heidegger, in order for any for-the-sake-of-which to be disclosed. It would not be possible to be a carpenter, for example, if we were nomadic and lived on the sides of mountains. This is not to say that it is metaphysically or logically impossible, just that you would have to be instrumental in opening up the possibility of being a carpenter in a situation like that. That "opening up" would have to be occasioned in some way (it's not necessary to outline all the possible ways in which this could happen, suffice it to ask why would we change from a nomadic existence to a sheltered one?) otherwise it's not going to be a significant option. A genuine act does not, therefore, have to be conscious as it still has a for-the-sake-of-which – a stance on one’s existence has already taken place, indeed must have taken place in order for anything at all to be significant in the first place. The point is, a person can dwell within the world opened up for them by a for-the-sake-of-which, even one which they did not consciously assume, and still have an understanding of why it is that they must do the things they do.

Where the two views converge again is through Aristotle’s rationally taking a stand on oneself which is mirrored in Heidegger by the notion of living authentically. Being authentic for Heidegger is to thematically take a stand on yourself, to do what Aristotle is saying and ask how it is that you ought to live your life. It is here that true moral responsibility occurs, as you are taking an authentic stand on yourself and assuming responsibility for not just how you will deal with things in life, but what sorts of things you will even deal with. Authenticity and asking how you ought to live your life are, I suggest, broadly very similar.

Questions I do want to pursue are how does the chain of explanation terminate through an encounter with nothingness? Is what is revealed by the anxiety which overcomes us, the revelation of the nothing, related to the world in which we already dwell?[1] I wonder if the revelation perhaps informed our very first apprehension of tools and way of living. People get bored, cavemen don’t just want to beat things with sticks, eat, and run about. If this was sufficient we would never have obtained our way of being, which is fundamentally tool-based (no for-the-sake-of-which is possible without the relevant tools). While it is true that our apprehension of tools was at first necessarily driven by instinctual facticity (I need to eat) how we went about this is not so determined. This is a big question though, and I think it may take a long time to even frame it properly.

Now the world, of course, determines the range of possible for-the-sake-of-which’s, as does our own facticity. Simply put, you’re not going to become a Jedi Master if there is no force, and you’re not going to become the women’s gymnast champion if you have a penis. The generation of a for-the-sake-of-which is necessitated by our special kind of existence, but is not subjective in the sense that it is wholly informed by our “inner feelings”. As Marx said, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”.

Could it be that the factical world is what more or less determines the social consciousness which Marx is referring to? Almost certainly, but what else, if anything, is involved?

[1] The relevant account of moods is found in Heidegger’s “What Is Metaphysics?”)

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