Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Living & Survival

On more than one occasion I have witnessed, espoused, or considered the notion that brute survival is the ultimate foundation of all actions, the ultimate good, that for the sake of which all else is ultimately done. We’ll call this the “survival view”. With the expression of this thought I wish to critically appraise the survival view, but it might seem hopeless of me to bring this issue to bear. What could be more self-evident than man’s will to live? Certainly, and I don’t wish to deny anything in expression of this thought but merely to challenge our understanding of what it means for a being which exists as we do to have a will to live. I don’t intend to make any proper conclusions here, for the issue (and the interpretive potential of the survival view) is complex. I am simply offering food for thought. However, first I must elucidate the survival view so we know what we’re looking for.

Consider that you have agreed to help a friend or family member move some boxes. The survival view would have it that your doing so ultimately relies upon your not wanting to lose the approval of the group, and that not wanting to lose the approval of the group is rooted in survival fears. As the Hobbesian account of the origins of civilisation would predict, losing the favour of the group means you forego the benefits of civilisation and are left to your own mortality. It is well known that banishment was (and still is when you consider imprisonment a form of banishment) a type of sanction wielded against those who fly in the face of the agreement.

Sexuality is of course frequently couched in terms of an orientation towards preserving survival, either that of the individual or the family (or indeed the species). Sexual attraction has even been interpreted as the recognition of personal features rendered salient by such a will to survive (wide hips in a woman, wide shoulders in a man, etc.). As an extension of sorts, one’s concerns about their family are also interpreted under the survival view. The sorts of anguish and anxiety concerned parents are put through by advertisements playing on their concern for their children are again seen as rooted in the drive for survival. But what is this “survival” which serves as the meaning-giving horizon for all of these various phenomena?

In order to get to the heart of this matter we will need to consider the two words under which I have brought this thought: “living” and “survival”. When one imagines the term “survival” we imagine a mode of existence in which everything inessential to the most rudimentary and basic impulse of life is discarded. Asking a friend with financial difficulties how they are getting by, they might reply “I’m surviving”. This sort of passive, only doing/having what is necessary is all that one requires to survive in the sense of getting from one day to the next. But what of living?

When we think of living we imagine the rich tapestry of activities we are involved in, or can become involved in. We think of lovers, friends, music, work, we think of books, films, walking, climbing, travelling, creating things, destroying things, dancing, fixing things, improving things, acquiring things… the list is, I expect, inexhaustible. To cite another common phrase, upon having a kind of breakthrough, perhaps a new job has afforded you an opportunity you did not have previously, or a certain experience has helped you overcome a limitation which you might have had, you could say “now I am really living”.

Clearly these two words, “living” and “surviving” are formally identical. When you strip them back to their logical structure both denote successfully getting from here to there in time (without dying!) However, their characters, considered in themselves, are actually opposed in a certain sense in that “survival” emphasises the passive “just getting by” of life, whereas "living" gives us a much more dynamic and colourful picture of what transpires in the business of life.

It’s certainly no secret that Western thinking tends to prioritise the cognitive-theoretical over other faculties of thought expressed in the life of man.[1] What results from this is an emphasis on the disinterested apprehension of the observer as opposed to the affective, involved apprehension of the participant. Our best descriptions of what life is like, this general view has it, originate in ways of looking at things which are not “coloured by subjectivity”, where phenomena encountered subjectively are demoted to the level of an unwanted cognitive interference (like noise on a phone line). The intuitions which bolster this view are numerous, involving various instances where affectivity genuinely does mess things up and where the detached apprehension of an observer is required.

Causal explanations of the sort yielded by science are one such arena where disinterested observation is essential.[2] Not only does the reduction of elements to their formal structure sharpen the focus of a scientific investigation (by delimiting the phenomena it focuses on to formalisable elements of natural or mechanical systems) but it also goes some way towards preventing bias. If it is the case that there is a threat to the future of our planet our feelings about it shouldn’t influence the results of our investigation as we’re trying to figure out what is genuinely going to happen and not what we would like to happen. However, the consequence of stressing this view as primary is that we end up thinking that the world in which we find such feelings is a false picture of what the world is “really” like…

When we consider our affairs it should come as no surprise that we interpret all of our dealings as resulting from a will to survive. We are, each and every one of us, involved in the business of life, expressing it in our various ways (even those who wish to die are responding to life and are involved in a particular mode of living). But we should not see our “living” as “survival”! It is not any mere “hunting” for necessity which drives man. Man does not simply wish to live but to live well.[3]

Man is concerned about existence. Man wants to live, and all of the things man does involve this "being towards life", but what the survival view misses is that it's not sufficient for man to merely be alive. Certainly everything we do concerns the future, our future, the future of the species - but we do a lot more whilst we're here than merely passing on our genes. We pass on a culture, a way of living and a body of knowledge (both practical and theoretical). The arts, sciences, and technology do a lot more for us over and above transmitting how to preserve our survival.

The extent of the violence which the survival view does to our pre-conceptual understanding is evidenced in its treatment of sexuality wherein the present life of the individuals in love are no longer in focus. The survival view of sexuality discards the affective and ultimately existential motives for seeking a partner and replaces them with a blind and impersonal impulse towards propagating the species. The invention of contraception (and let’s not forget the phenomenon of masturbation) are places in which we find sexuality expressed in realms extraneous to that of mere survival.

It may be objected that such phenomena are merely the “sublimation” of the will to propagate the species. However, I feel there are too many possible motivations for seeking and pursuing partners. For instance, the continuation of affection between lovers even after reproductive capabilities are severed (either by nature of by their own intervention) certainly suggests that something more than merely furthering one’s genetic agenda is at play. More casual pursuits also inhibit the reproductive initiative. Reasons for involving oneself in a relationship of this particular sort might be related to self-esteem, boredom[4], or the suppression of a feeling of loneliness opened up by the prior loss of a more significant relationship.

It can be nice sometimes to reflect with a friend or a lover on the memories you’ve shared, the places you’ve been, or to have a smoke or a drink and share some laughs together. The survival view sees these acts not as having value in their own sake, but in their contribution towards securing survival. Seeking lovers without the intention of having children would no doubt be interpreted as feeding back into the “survival loop” in some way, perhaps in its alleviation of anxiety, a condition inimical to survival. But what makes this view implausible (I do not think it is grounds for calling it explicitly false at present) is that people, in their gut, would often rather die than be forced to live life in a certain way. The fact that the survival instinct has to be maintained in situations where living well has been critically compromised at least suggests the priority of living well over merely living in the life of man.

The survival view, as I see it, is based upon a category mistake in that it confuses a third-person detached explanation with an involved, first-person description. It assumes the formal, detached account of the actions of human beings is primary and subsequently attempts to reduce all of the phenomena encountered by an involved participant in its own terms. When we come to appraise our lives and the value of the efforts we make we are left with the formal account which offers simple survival as our fundamental reason for living when in reality our motivations for living far surpass merely surviving. It is the quality of our life which moves us, not simply securing the mere fact of our being[5] but ensuring that we live triumphantly. In short, it is not the simple fact that we wish to survive which is false. It is rather the way of stopping short at formalisable facts which falsifies our understanding of what it is that we preserve in continuing to live, something which can only be made manifest by living it (or expressed linguistically by describing what is thus made manifest).

- Jordan Adshead (January 2012)

[1] For a more explicit and in depth critique of this cultural idiosyncrasy see Gilbert Ryle’s “The Concept of Mind”, Hubert Dreyfus’ “Mind over Machine”, essay three of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals”, and Martin Heidegger’s “Being and Time” which, for my money, offers the most expanded and in-depth critique of this phenomenon.

[2] Note that here I mean only scientific questions work best without affective involvement. Any questions about science, however, validly concern the appraisal of the feelings.

[3] This is the view shared by José Ortega Y Gasset.

[4] I expect boredom has a large role to play in understanding the life of human beings.

[5] Consider your own understanding of the term "being" as it is presented here. When you read "our being" did you imagine an objectively present thing? Or did you imagine being in the sense of activity: be-ing, like mov-ing, or walk-ing - being as a thing we do?

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