Hubert Dreyfus Interview
Hubert Dreyfus is a professor of philosophy and best-selling author on the subjects of artificial intelligence and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.
When you think about the common man out there going about
their life – going to work, taking care of their families –
what, according to you and your research, are they,
Well, I guess they’re missing the excitement of discovering
some interesting question, the answer to which really
concerns them and making some actual progress in answering
it. And, having, I don’t know if it’s the luck or sense or
intuition that it’s a problem that concerns lots of people
and one’s answering it has implications for the community
or the world. They’re just doing the normal thing; they’re
doing what one does. They only understand the problems
their contemporaries understand and they try to deal with
them. And, that’s probably more than some people do. Some
people just try to get through the week.
But, I’m thinking of people, for instance, my fellow
graduate students, some of whom were very smart – we were
at Harvard. I don’t think that I was very smart, but some
of them were. And they were just doing the normal thing.
They were going to write their Ph.D. on a subject that
everybody agreed was a current interesting subject though
it was not really interesting to anybody. They were going
to take a problem that everybody agreed was a problem and
make some little progress in solving the problem, though it
wasn’t their problem. That’s the best one can think of
doing outside of something utterly different which is in
retrospect I now see I and my brother (Stuart, who’s also a
professor here) was doing and my daughter who is doing a
double Ph.D. now in Paris and in Princeton. We all think
we’re stupid, the three of us. We don’t understand nearly
as much as these other people. We don’t think it’s an
illusion or just modesty. We’re not as smart as these other
people. There’s something else and that is being gripped by
your own individual question and not taking anybody’s
answer for an answer.
In my case I had to write my Ph.D. thesis in the normal
boring way of normal science, you could say, because if I
didn’t I would’ve been fired. I had been teaching at MIT
for 7 years and after that you’re up or out in this
academic business. So, I had to get a Ph.D. Most people get
one 4 years after their BA. I got my BA in ’51. It was ’64
before I was finally forced to write my thesis. That’s an
enormous amount of time. I was hanging around Harvard
trying to figure out what a sensible topic was. I traveled
around Europe listening to famous professors. None of their
topics interested me. But, then I got grabbed by one. My
current sort of status in inspiring some sort of awe in
students and colleagues in so far as I do is because I was
lucky enough to be teaching in MIT in ’58.
There were the people in the artificial intelligence
project or laboratory, and computers had just come out and
become important. They said they could program computers to
be intelligent like people. They came to my course and said
more or less: “We don’t need Plato and Kant and Descartes
anymore. That was all just talk. We’re empirical. We’re
going to actually do it.” I really wanted to know – could
they do it? If they could, it was very important. If they
couldn’t, then human beings were different than machines
and that was very important. Nobody else in philosophy in
those days paid any attention to what the computer people
were doing. If I hadn’t been at MIT, I wouldn’t have either
because they hadn’t become a big deal yet. But, there they
So, I got a grant and lived in Paris for a year and thought
about it and read their books and all the relevant material
I could find. It seemed to me they had taken over
philosophy as a research program. Philosophy had failed
during just the generation I was in. It failed to do what
it had tried to do for 2000 years which is get a coherent
picture of human beings in the world that was rational and
explicit and that you could argue for your conclusion and
convince other people of it. The project goes back to Plato
at least. Two important philosophers that I liked – Ludwig
Wittgenstein in England and Martin Heidegger in Germany -
had just pretty well demonstrated that what you could call
traditional rationalist philosophy wouldn’t work.
So, I thought it was fascinating that the computer people
had just taken over a certain view of human beings and how
the mind works on calculation on bits of information that’s
out there and the mind has to get a proper representation
of the world – that whole picture. They had taken over from
philosophy just when philosophy had abandoned it and given
them a lemon which they didn’t know yet until they tried
it. They tried it for something like 30 years until they
realized it broke down completely. But, then I had a
project and I was grabbed by it, and then I could see
things that nobody else could see because I could see them
in a new light. There was no normal question and no normal
way of proceeding and no normal answer.
First I wrote “Alchemy and Artificial Intelligence.” I was
very lucky. I think luck plays a huge role in this. I can’t
understand as a rational 20th century human being how there
could be something like luck. But, I do swear there are
people who have it and there are wonderful people whose
lives are ruined because everything just goes wrong for
them. Anyway, I was very lucky. Not only did I have at MIT
the people who were doing the stuff, I also had the
resource of my brother who at that point was at the Rand
Corporation, and they were at the place where the other
important people – Herb Simon in particular – were also
claiming that they were making computers intelligent.
So, my brother got me invited to the Rand Corporation as a
consultant to study the work of Allen Newel and Simon which
was the work called ‘cognitive simulation’ using computers.
That’s when I really began to understand what they were up
to and why it was wrong. I couldn’t have ever done it
without the amazing luck that I said to my brother that one
of the philosophers I like, Maurice Merleau-Ponty – “if
he’s right your colleagues there are taking on something
that is impossible for them to do.” He said that to the
boss of the project and the boss of the project said that
his brother in Israel just wrote to him that he shouldn’t
support this stuff because of what Merleau-Ponty said. He
told my brother that we can’t hire his brother in Israel so
we better hire your brother to come and do something about
it. So I wrote “Alchemy and Artificial Intelligence.”
Then came another bizarre piece of luck which at the time I
didn’t appreciate at all. I had never heard of the New
Yorker magazine. I came from Tarahoe Indiana. Now I like
it. It made the first item in the talk of the town that I
had written this article – “Alchemy and Artificial
Intelligence.” From there Harper and Row picked it up and
wanted me to write a book about it. Whereas everybody else
I know submits manuscripts for books and tries to find
presses to agree and then the presses send it out to be
evaluated, all the papers and books I’ve written in my life
– people ask me to write. It’s just not normal. So, I wrote
it for Harper and Row and it became a kind of career for 20
years to write stuff about computers.
Gradually other philosophers started to see that computers
raised important philosophical issues. Gradually
grudgingly, very slowly, the people in Artificial
Intelligence research came to realize that the situation
was hopeless. When I really understood it was hopeless was
in the early ‘70s when they had to program what they called
‘common sense knowledge’ which is the kind of knowledge you
have as one of them put it, “When you’re in New York, your
foot is in New York or that when you’re dead you stay
dead,” and millions of such things which they thought were
just facts that you had to organize. I thought, no, it’s
not just bare facts. For one thing a lot of what we know we
know just by being in the world and looking around and
having bodies. It’s not a bare fact that I can’t chew gum
and whistle at the same time. It’s something that I can
just sort of try and run and simulate and I can see
immediately that I can’t do it. Even more important, even
if they got all these millions of facts, then they’d have
no way of getting the relevant one at any given point.
So, I thought they’ve had it and wrote an introduction to
the 2nd introduction of my What Computers Can’t Do saying
the common sense knowledge problem will do them in. Now,
Marvin Minski, who was then the head guru of Artificial
Intelligence and the head of the A.I. lab, had written a
blurb that it was perfectly reasonable to think that
computers would be intelligent by the time we got to 2001.
He wrote that in ’68 or so. Recently Minski has just said
in Wired magazine that A.I. has been brain dead since the
early ‘70s since they ran into the common sense knowledge
problem. But it took them a long, long time to admit it.
Now there are other things to worry about – other ways to
try and make computers intelligent which I have to think
about. I had sort of put aside computers. I thought I won
that. I published a 3’d edition of my book, What Computers
Still Can’t Do, and catalogued what it looks like to be a
degenerating research program which is a technical way of
describing when all of your predictions don’t work and
you’re always surprised and people leave the field because
they can’t solve anything. That’s where they were, but now
I have to go back and think about it again.
I don’t understand anything about computers. They were
always criticizing me that “He doesn’t even know how to
program a computer,” which I don’t. But, I knew what the
essence of computers was and that’s what was important –
the way they had bits of data and followed rules to
organize those data into representations. Descartes said
you don’t have to know computers to know that. But, anyway,
I just won something called the Barwize Prize named after a
famous logician who died a while back by the American
Philosophical Association for my work on philosophy and
computers which I think is neat. But, it has the
requirement that I’m supposed to give a keynote talk on
philosophy and computers, so I have to start thinking about
But, right now I have nothing more to say about them except
that now people are trying to use computers to simulate the
way the brain processes and interacts with the world. I
still think that won’t work because our brains are in our
bodies and our bodies interact with the world and if the
computer is just sitting there on the shelf on a black box
it’s not going to be able to interact with the world in the
right way. But, now I have to work that out. So, end of
Well, clearly computers and how that fits in with
philosophy has been a passion of yours and particularly
having the people in A.I. understand that it’s not really
going to work. You’ve devoted lots of thinking and
conversation to winning that. I also think you’ve spent a
lot of time in trying to inspire other people about their
lives. You may not normally think of it in that way, but,
when one hears your former students who become writers talk
about you, they definitely say that. One gets a sense that
you bring a real passion to your work even with your
undergraduate students. And, the work you’ve gravitated
toward – Sǿren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger – they were
interested in improving life for people. So, let’s talk
about that now. Back to that common man going about his
life. You say he’s not asking a question, he’s not being
introspective or reflective about his life. If he were to
start the path of becoming an authentic individual, where
would he start?
Okay, you’re going to find the answer surprising. Let’s
start with the fact that it’s true for reasons I don’t
understand at all that my courses change people’s lives.
Dozens and dozens of students stop me in the supermarket
and send me letters and emails that the Kierkegaard and
Heidegger and Nietzsche courses changed their lives. On the
one hand I find this quite surprising – they didn’t ever
change my life. On the other hand, I find it sort of
obvious, if you read those philosophers, it ought to change
your life. But, it’s very peculiar to me that I never had
any such experience of these people changing my life. The
world looked exactly the same to me before and after
reading Kierkegaard or Heidegger or something. I still
don’t know what it means.
I’m beginning to think, but it seems sort of arrogant or
crazy, but it’s the best hypothesis I’ve ever been able to
come up with, is that my brother and I started out
authentically so we didn’t have to go through the “let’s
get out of the normal boring everybody does this and so
should we, let’s look good, let’s get the approval of the
neighbors.” Maybe it goes back to that. My mother was a
fanatic about what the neighbors would think. As long as my
brother and I were conscious, we were horrified by that.
Maybe it was way back then that we changed our lives. I
don’t know. But, it’s true that my students change their
lives. I don’t know how it happens because I don’t know
what it is to have a life other than the one that these
people like Heidegger and Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are
I just go up there in class and I suppose I somehow
demonstrate as I teach that what I care about isn’t looking
good or getting honors or getting paid or anything like
that. I want to know what truth these authors have found
and I’ve got no preconceptions and I’m ready to give up any
view I’ve got if some student gives me a better one of how
to read the text or how to understand human beings.
Apparently that makes me a distinguished teacher for which
I get awards every once in a while. It’s so easy for me –
so obvious. My fellow teachers must be very boring and I
think it’s just relative to that background that my courses
seem so exciting. To me they just seem to be what any
sensible person would do if they stood up in front of a
class and tried to understand something.
So, as far as reflection, what I’m going to say is sort of
going to be surprising. I don’t understand the role of
reflection in becoming authentic. I doubt if reflection
plays any important role. Nobody I know who’s authentic got
that way by thinking about what it was to be a human being
or be authentic. I think they were that way all along. To
take in the extreme case: How to be a great person and make
a difference without thinking about it at all. I love the
movie Schindler’s List. Schindler had no idea he was a
courageous man and a moral hero out of millions of people
risking his life everyday for the Jews when he wasn’t even
Jewish. That was part of the marvel of it. I suspect that
that’s generally how it is.
But, there must be, and this is where you and your training
work comes in, a way, another whole bunch of people who
start off in the wrong direction in this conforming,
leveling world, doing normal stuff. It isn’t that they’re
afraid to do something else; they don’t even have the idea
that anybody does something else. Those people do need
somehow to be knocked over the head and made to reflect and
to see how meaningless their lives are and shown that there
are other kinds of lives. I think that’s a very important
thing to do. I’m very happy that you do it, but it’s
nothing I know how to do. So, there has to be another way
to do it and I don’t know what to say much about it except,
one, read these amazing people who talk about it like
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and, then, see somebody like me I
guess who just cares about it and lives it.
I’m very dubious about the role of reflection and I’m very
dubious of this human potential supposedly in people that
they’re supposed to find and release. Certainly Kierkegaard
didn’t think that. Kierkegaard said in his Christian
version that we’re all sinful, which means there’s nothing
in us which is good. It’s got to be something from outside
us which attracts us and gives us the impetus to have what
he calls ‘infinite passion’. I can understand that. I was
lucky enough to get it. I had nothing in me. I still have
nothing in me. That’s what’s so interesting and nice. I’m
just absolutely as far as I can tell open to whatever
problem comes and grabs me and whatever student comes in to
my office and tells me about something interesting that I
hadn’t thought about. Merleau-Ponty talks about “we’re open
heads turned toward the world.” I think that’s right.
Let me try this on you. What I think is that, through the
course of our development in our early life, we become
aware of a couple of things. One is that we’re going to
die. This questions our significance in the world. Life’s
going to be snatched away from us. All of the projects that
we’ve given so much to will ultimately come to nothing.
And, we don’t have any control over when that happens. Put
on top of that that while we live the possibilities
available to us are not grounded in any foundation –
they’re just based on agreement and, moreover, that culture
which we’re brought into doesn’t need us at all or even
care about our individual impulses. For example, the little
kid in the restaurant who feels like dancing. The culture
says we don’t care what you feel like doing – that’s not
appropriate so stop. So, I think that says to people in an
indirect way, you don’t matter, you as an individual aren’t
important. So, as a result of that, people justify playing
small in life because they don’t matter anyway. What are
your thoughts on that?
That’s interesting. I never worried about it whether I
mattered or was significant or insignificant. My mother
thought I was significant. We had to pick some motto for
the yearbook in high-school. She picked from Shakespeare’s
Julius Caesar, “How far this little candle throws its
beam,” which now I think is pretty good. People all over
the world are thinking in my way and following my way. It
didn’t occur to me at the time. I just thought it was
funny. It was just a quote I didn’t pay any attention to. I
never had any idea what was happening. When I got into
Harvard and MIT, I had never heard of any one of them.
My debate coach recommended I apply to them and he
recommended I go to Harvard so I went to Harvard. I wanted
to go to MIT because I liked to make bombs when I was a
kid. I figured I’d learn how to make better bombs at MIT.
But, I loved my debate coach so I did it. I had no clue. I
was so out of it. My family was so out of it looking back
on it. There were no books or magazines or music records in
the house. I don’t know what they talked about. My father
was in the wholesale poultry business. It certainly took a
long time for me to even realize there was a distinction
between significant and insignificant people. Then I
thought I was definitely an insignificant person.
Everybody’s life is different and mine doesn’t fit the
pattern I or you would’ve expected. First I did physics at
Harvard. I had my roommates who I now realize were two of
the smartest students at Harvard. One’s in the National
Academy and one’s a professor at Harvard. They seemed to
understand chemistry and physics so I felt even stupider.
But, I sort of leaned on them. In grad school I found
another student who had a big influence on my life because
he was a brilliant philosopher and I learned a huge amount
talking to him (Samuel Todes) and listening to him. Nobody
else seemed to realize ever how important he was. Since he
just died lately, I published his Ph.D. thesis which is one
of the best books written in the last century I think. I
guess other people don’t listen to other people and learn
from them. That’s where I want to get to the bottom line.
If you think you’re insignificant, you can either sort of
play it small and just hide out, or you can find someone
significant to hang on to which is what I’ve always done.
Or you can try to prove yourself.
That’s true and I didn’t do that either. Yes, there are
these people who are constantly trying to prove themselves.
You’ve got to have a lot of confidence that you’ve got a
self to prove. I didn’t think I did, so that didn’t work. I
thought I was really empty, knew nothing, and came from the
back woods, relatively speaking, of Indiana and wasn’t
terribly bright. But, there were wonderful people in the
world who were very bright and knew a lot and I would go
around sort of collecting them. These friends that I’ve
collected are just amazing. And, they say they got
something out of listening to me. It never seemed that way
to me. I thought they knew how to do it and I wanted to
listen to them. So, there must be a 3’d kind of person who
thinks they’re insignificant and are neither willing to
stay that way nor think that they could prove otherwise,
but are very open to what other people have to offer.
That’s how it was with me. My ideas come from this guy, Sam
Todes, – the graduate student I liked so much when I was a
graduate student. I’m still discovering how much what I
thought were my ideas are in some way his ideas and that
doesn’t bother me.
Let’s take the issue of our mortality. You say for yourself
that hasn’t really occupied you in any significant sense.
And, really, I don’t think it occupies me either, and as I
talk to people about it, I don’t think it occupies them
either. On the other hand, certainly the existentialists
say it’s a key feature of our existence. Is there possibly
a sense that the everyday person – including you and I –
that our way of dealing with death is indirect? We don’t
think it’s affecting us but it is.
I bet. I think about that now particularly now that I’m 75.
It hit me about 15 years ago when I was thinking about how
it would be interesting if, although I was happy with my
wife and children, I could be able to marry someone else
too and have other children as if there were all these
other possibilities. And, then one day it hit me – “This is
the only life you’ve got and you’ve already committed
yourself to all these things.” I was stunned. I was in the
swimming pool here – I remember. That’s when it hit me that
I was finite and mortal. I was already about 60. I think it
had been affecting me all along and I think it must affect
different people in very different ways.
I always try to cram so much into my life to get every
possibility realized. I organize things so that I can see
as many people and films and read as many books and go to
as many concerts and give as many lectures as I could
possibly do. And, I’ve always done that. I take it that I
figure every moment is valuable. I would go crazy if I had
to sit around and do nothing. I bet that’s my way of
dealing with the fact that time is going to run out. You’ve
only got, as Heidegger says, an allotted amount of time.
I’m really trying to get the most out of that allotment.
Other people will surely have other ways of dealing with
The other thing lately I’ve been thinking about recently is
Buddhism. Boy is their world different. They sound very
much like Plato. I’m convinced Plato was influenced by the
Buddhists. People know that Plato went off somewhere and
came back believing in reincarnation and a lot of other
weird things that he didn’t believe in when he left. What
Plato and the Buddhists are constantly doing is upping the
ante on how much significance it takes for something to
really be significant. “Your life won’t be significant
unless you eternally have some love or project” and lo and
behold you can’t. “You’re going to die and the significance
of it is all going to disappear so it isn’t significant
now.” That’s a kind of fallacy I guess or hope or try to
believe. It’s perfectly well significant now. It doesn’t
require that it’s going to last forever for it to be
Giving a good lecture is significant now no matter what
happens. My wife and children are significant to me now no
matter what happens. I think there’s something wrong with a
way of thinking about death and emptiness that undermines
the significance that you can have in spite of the fact
that you die and in spite of the fact that everything
changes. I don’t know why more people don’t see that.
Kierkegaard says that when you have an infinite passion for
something and it’s something you’re doing, then it’s giving
meaning to your life. That’s eternity in time, and that’s
the only eternity you can get. And, in fact, that’s the
only eternity you need and that sounds right to me.
Let’s look at it from an emotional level. I think what
happens is people do give themselves over to things whether
it’s religion or projects and then they get completely
defeated. It’s a horrible experience. From then on they
want to play it safe and much more cautious to avoid being
I love this. This is good. You’re going to be amazed what I
think about this.
For you, you’ve had this incredible luck and may have
avoided all this. If you have had some of this, how have
you managed to keep ramming forward even though you’re
I have a theory about that. I think I was totally defeated
at the age of 2 when my younger sibling was born. I felt I
was thrown out of the center and I interpreted it that
there was something wrong with me that they would even need
another child. I didn’t think that consciously. I was in
therapy for a while and studied my dreams. What I didn’t
learn in therapy and what I think now is: I was so totally
defeated that I felt in my life I had nothing to lose. I
lost everything already. I was free to take any sort of
risks. I had no defensiveness. That’s what ought to happen
to people who take some big defeat, but it has to be a very
big one. If it’s terrible enough, it’s totally liberating.
I know who says this. Have you come across Steve Jobs’
commencement address? It’s terrific. It’s about this
tremendous defeat when he was fired at Apple. He had nobody
to turn to and then he says it’s the best thing that ever
happened to him. He was so liberated. He was free to think
of new things. He started two new companies and so forth.
And, it’s about death, too. For one whole day it looked
like he was going to die within 6 weeks, and he thinks that
was a great experience.
So, you have to let it in. You have to let that defeat
So, you have nothing to prove anymore, nothing to defend
In an existential sense, maybe, in doing that, you’re fully
owning your mortality instead of running away from it. It’s
symbolic of dying.
You face your ultimate insignificance. That’s what I think
I faced when I got this younger brother. That’s right. What
you lose is what I see other people have so much of – the
kind of caution you were describing so as not to undertake
things because they might fail. If you understand that
you’ve already failed and you’re going to totally fail and
there’s no point in worrying about it because it can’t be
helped, then you can undertake anything. I do the craziest,
riskiest things on every level. I always have.
What about some who would argue: If you realize it’s
totally insignificant and you’re totally defeated, why not
just give up? What is the impulse that pulls you forward?
That is where I have this semi-religious feeling that you
don’t give up because something calls you – because
something calls you either because it’s interesting enough
or makes you angry enough. Partly the computer thing was I
thought these people were self-deluded and were deluding
the media and public. And everybody was going around
worrying about what would happen when the computers take
over and it made me very angry. Of course there’s also
somebody you love that makes you very happy – my children
make me very happy. You can’t give your life meaning.
This attempt to prove things and become important and so
forth – that’s bad, that’s what’s going to make you
cautious. You’ve got something you want to get, and, when
you get it, you want to preserve it. When you’ve lost
everything, you’re open for things to grab you just because
they do. I’m sure there’s a reason. There’s some reason why
it was the computers grabbed me and not some other issue,
although that was the 2nd issue by the way.
In my undergraduate days, I got very concerned about
whether quantum physics had gotten rid of our understanding
of causality. Whereas my fellow undergraduates were making
up theses to get some honor or other, all I did was spend a
year in the library reading everything I could find trying
to decide whether it does or doesn’t undermine causality.
Is Einstein right or is Bohr right? I was really worried
about it. Then I wrote down what I found out. I really did
a funny crazy thing. Two weeks before the honor’s thesis
was due I still hadn’t been able to prove Einstein was
right though that was my intuition. And, I didn’t have time
anymore so I proved that Bohr was right.
I got highest honors while all my fellow classmates got
ordinary honors. It just grabbed me. That’s how it goes. I
guess the point is to be in a position where, one, you can
let these things grab you. That’s got partly to do with
some sense of death and nothingness. Then, second, the
sense that you have nothing to prove so that you can pursue
what grabs you without asking yourself is this going to get
me honors or is this going to get me in trouble. It got me
in huge trouble.
That’s interesting. The people say, “Oh, you were so
courageous at MIT. You took on the computer people who were
very powerful.” It was like Schindler’s List: It never
occurred to me to ask whether they were more powerful than
I was. They were. They tried to keep me from getting
tenure. It went to the President of MIT and from there to
the computer scientists of the world to tell him whether my
book was bad or good. I got tenure over their dead bodies.
If you ask yourself, is it a good idea to take on the
computer establishment if you’re a professor at MIT, of
course, no one in their right mind would do it. But, that’s
not the question.
The person who’s out there succeeding because they want to
make up for their inherent insecurity and insignificance –
even when they do succeed, even when they do win the prize,
they’re somehow still empty. Do you think somehow they’re
reinforcing the original foundation which is this sense
that they’re not enough?
I don’t know what to think about that. When my book wins in
the sense that I turn out to be right against all those
computer people and I actually even win this funny prize,
what do I feel?
But, in your case, you weren’t really doing it to win the
Yes, the people who do it to win the prize, it doesn’t
help. They still feel insignificant and empty and that
bothers them. In my case, I still feel insignificant and
empty, but it doesn’t bother me. It liberates me and makes
me free and makes me able to do crazy things. It’s not that
they feel insignificant that’s bad. It’s somehow that they
feel bad about feeling insignificant. It’s not important to
be significant. It’s important to follow those kinds of
questions that are grabbing you. I feel just as stupid as
ever and so do my brother and my daughter. I think it’s
fascinating. I mean when Jobs succeeds he just feels
exhilarated and ready to make a new company or the iPod. I
don’t know how he feels about significance – he doesn’t
say. So, there’s a wrong way to go about trying to give
meaning to your life that won’t work.
Is there a difference between coming from “I’m nothing –
open space and possibility” – and “I’m something that’s not
Yes, that’s very important, although they’re very closely
related. Being something that’s not right isn’t big enough
and annihilating enough. Kierkegaard would call it despair.
There’s something not right about me and whatever it is
could never be right in that sense. Is that it? That isn’t
right either. Despair won’t get you anywhere.
I’m thinking of what you call the wrong way or the
defeating way. When I take my self to be this thing that’s
not right, it’s like Humpty Dumpy. You can’t really put
that thing back together no matter how hard you try.
We’re missing something. When I got my younger sibling, I
thought there’s something not right with me. I thought I
could never be important or meaningful or satisfy people or
make them happy or something. That must have been what I
felt, but that can be liberating. There’s a missing link.
You said it maybe. Trying to make up for whatever’s not
right will never work. You’ve got to go into a whole
different dimension. Or, you have to say that every time
you succeed it doesn’t convince you that you’re not
insignificant. Every time I succeed it doesn’t convince me
that I’m smart or that I’ve got any inner truth either.
The other person who succeeds in your story, whatever was
bothering them is still bothering them – this
insignificance or insufficiency. In my case, insufficiency
was so devastating that it’s not bothering me anymore. It’s
somehow freeing me. I don’t really understand what people
who have some sense of their dignity and their importance
and so forth have that they’re so afraid to lose because I
don’t have it.
That’s why I can stand up in front of the class and admit
that I was totally wrong and foolish the previous lecture,
and isn’t it wonderful that some student has come to my
office and pointed out the sense in which the text says
just the opposite of what I was saying. Most of my
colleagues can’t do that. They certainly can’t do it on the
fly. I can take back the whole lecture in the last 5
minutes. What’s going on for them? There’s some sense they
have of their own importance.
I think it might come back to the mortality issue.
I know I’m not going to make myself immortal by getting
everything right and being a powerful, important person.
Maybe in some way, although clearly it’s irrational.
They want to get over death by settling that they are
really important leaders of this or writers of that, that
what they say is true.
What about the old Kleos (translated as ‘glory’) story from
The Iliad. The thought is you can achieve eternal glory by
people talking about you. If I put my life together in a
right enough way, I won’t die. I’ll be so great and people
will keep me alive.
That’s what Achilles chose in The Iliad. In The Odyssey he
realizes he was wrong. He’d rather be a farmer alive than
have all this glory dead.
Clearly it would be irrational to think that if I put my
life together in a right enough way, I’m not going to die.
We all realize our bodies will die. Maybe what motivates
people to be so concerned with their pride and their
reputation is this Kleos idea that I need to protect my
That’s good. That’s right. They want that. I’m sort of
curious about it. This must be a banal thing. But, I keep
thinking, gee, I’d love to be around after I die and hear
what people say about me. Everybody must want that and
that’s to hear what reputation you’ve got. But, I don’t do
what I do to in order to put words in the mouths of the
people who will be speaking at my funeral saying what a
great guy I was. I remember a conversation where I was
offered an honorary degree and I was asking Charles Taylor,
who’s a famous philosopher, and another fellow, a famous
anthropologist, – we just happened to be having lunch. And,
I said, “Should I go to this? - I don’t know if I want to
go all the way to Amsterdam to get this honorary degree.”
And, Charles Taylor said, “I’ve never accepted an honorary
degree in my life. You certainly shouldn’t bother to go.”
And the other chap said, “I accept every one that’s offered
to me. I’m looking at my obituary in the NYT.” So, I don’t
know what to think about that.
You revel in the moment to moment experience of life.
Exactly. I’m just happy if I a good lecture. I was happy
for the last two or three days because I thought I gave a
terrific lecture in the Heidegger course. Then a student
came and shot it down and said he didn’t see that it was
relevant at all to any current question in philosophy. Now,
I have to go back next Tuesday and save it. But, I was very
happy for two days, and I’ll be very happy if I can turn it
around and show the student that it was worthwhile after
all. That’s enough. That kind of game is what’s exciting
from day to day.
It’s hard to see why people want to live forever. I think I
know. I want to live for a long, long time, a lot longer
than I’m going to live, to see what’s going to happen to my
children and their children. But, there’s some kind of
wrong view of significance to think that it has to last
forever and it has to be recognized by everyone.
I wonder if there’s a circularity to it and a somewhat
pernicious nature to it. If someone goes along with that
story, it justifies this playing safe kind of life. It’s
kind of like a noble way to justify not living fully. It’s
not that I’m playing safe, because I’m weak. I have this
That sounds right. “Don’t risk your already important
dignity and prestige and position in life because that’s
all you’ve got and that’s valuable.” That keeps you from
taking any risks. People think they better preserve the
significance they’ve got and therefore take no risks and,
in effect, lose the excitement of seeing new possibilities
and new identities and starting new companies and whatever
people do like Jobs. He’s one of my heroes. I think he’s
just wonderful. I bet that these other people don’t ask
themselves, “Is this worth the risk?” and, so, they don’t.
Or, maybe they do ask, and figure it’s not worth it. But,
the people who take the risks, my hunch is, don’t ask
themselves, “Is it worth the risk?” They’re just attracted
to whatever it is like Schindler or me at MIT fighting the
It’s just not in the way to do things to sort of calculate
the risks and then don’t do it because it’s risky or do do
it because it’s safe. People live like that I guess. It’s
very, very hard for me to understand the way people live
that people like you or Fernando (Flores) or Werner
(Erhard) try to rescue. These people all have the sense of
the real boredom and misery and self-shooting-in-the-foot
of people’s lives. I think that’s fascinating, but I don’t
have it. I don’t see it.
What role do you think Christianity has played in what we’re talking about as far as the individual playing it somewhat safe in life?
Christianity comes in so many forms. Certainly the Kierkegaard form, which is the one I like, the sort of deviant form, talks about taking risks. Poor Kierkegaard tried so hard to become a martyr. He did everything he could to become a martyr. He did everything he could to take risks. He assaulted the bishop and so forth. He broke his engagement with Regine. He did all sorts of outrageous things but nobody cared enough about him to be upset. But, certainly his version of Christianity was that Christ invented the notion of unconditional commitment where you’re willing to stake everything on a love or a cause, starting with the disciples changing their names and identities in their world in their total life and death commitment to Jesus.
And, then Dante takes it up and does it again in romantic love form with Beatrice. And Kierkegaard then sort of generalizes it to anything for which you can stake all the meaning of your life with this kind of thing called ‘infinite passion’. This is what will give you all you need – you’ll be infinite and finite, temporal and eternal, the possible and the necessary. It would take a while to spell all that out. But, everything that a human being needs, you can get if you’re ready to take the total risk of basing your happiness on something which can’t be guaranteed. That’s an interesting idea.
No other religion and no other culture make this big fuss out of something like romantic love for instance. That was a Western invention by the troubadours in the time of Dante but it wouldn’t have been invented by them if it hadn’t already been invented by Jesus who said you can love me as if I was God. So, Christianity does it one way. Kierkegaard thinks you should stick to one commitment all your life. That’s the highest thing you can do.
Maybe this is what Kierkegaard was fighting against, but I wonder if the everyday banal version of it is simply, “Well, I’m going to have everlasting life anyway, so no problem.”
That’s right. I don’t even know what to make of that. I’m so far from understanding sort of fundamentalist kind of Christianity that thinks there’s going to be this afterlife where everything is paid for either in bliss or suffering. There are lots of religions like that all over the world and it is in Christianity. Is it in Jesus already? He promises them eternal life if you believe in him. Kierkegaard would give his own translation of that. It’s so funny – the Hebrews don’t have it. There’s no afterlife for the Hebrews. And, I don’t know where it comes from. Being Jewish may be why it never got to be part of my way of thinking. I’m sure that there are other ways to let your religion make your life easy in Judaism too I imagine. But, this is certainly one way of making your life easy and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche don’t like it a bit.
I suspect that some of the students who get their lives changed by existentialist courses and books have grown up in a strictly Catholic or Protestant religious thing and Heidegger or Nietzsche or Kierkegaard has just destroyed it. Nietzsche is telling people – “Don’t get committed to something all your life.” Don’t have this kind of steadiness and steadfastness. That’s limiting. Be totally open and flexible but take the risks. “Live dangerously” is the quote that’s important. “Build your cities on Vesuvius.” Put yourself into all sorts of risky situations. That’s an important message of Nietzsche all right.
Kierkegaard would just say, “How much more of a risky situation can you get than being totally committed to somebody or something which can fail any minute?” You’re always in anxiety and you’re always swimming over 20,000 fathoms. They’re just different prescriptions of what kind of risk to take. In Nietzsche it’s always, “Put your whole life on the line and start something new.”
I guess Nietzsche would like Jobs - just dropping his commitment to Apple when it didn’t work anymore after they kicked him out. After going around in shock, he started Next and Pixar. Constantly being ready to give up whatever it is that is making you secure in your world and your identity is the Nietzsche thing. And, Kierkegaard’s answer is that you’re never secure in your world and your identity. So, why should you give them up? They’re risky already. So, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are just two different possibilities.
If we look back at the Greeks or the Romans before Christianity, what do we see? The downside is no charity and very little compassion for the individual just as a human being. On the other side, were they in some way more familiar with living this kind of ‘go for it’ life? Has Christianity calmed us and civilized us in some way?
That’s certainly what Nietzsche thinks. He thinks that Jesus was terrific. He says the only good Christian died on the cross. He thinks Jesus was ready to risk his life. There was only one thing wrong with Jesus, Nietzsche thinks, and it was compassion and pity and feeling you should help the poor and downtrodden. I have no philosophical point about compassion and pity. I’m enough of a contemporary person to feel bad for the suffering of others and want to help them.
I don’t think the Romans had this sort of ‘go for it’ sense. It was the Homeric Greeks Nietzsche admired so much. The Homeric Greeks do seem to have everything right – to go for whatever grabs them all the way. It’s clear with Achilles, but it’s more interesting with Helen who just runs off and leaves her husband who was king and her young son because she finds Paris attractive. And, she’s ready to go to Troy and start all over again. That’s a kind of letting things grab you that I think is amazing. And, when she comes back, nobody criticizes her.
Menelaus admires her for having had the openness to do that and takes her back and praises her at dinner and parties. He says, “A beautiful story well told my dear.” Any modern reader can’t help but hear that as ironic as in, “Nice tale about how you left me and our kid for that handsome foreigner and now you blame it on Aphrodite.” But, I don’t think that’s what it means at all. It means, “You were absolutely open to the risk and the possibilities of the situation and you took them and you lived them and you suffered for it and I think that’s great and I’m glad to have you back.” I think that’s what he meant by that.
So, do you think a major turning point was Plato? With the issue of Platonic love, he’s saying, “Don’t get too involved - It’s too messy.”
Yes. A little more specifically, he thinks you can start out by loving beautiful bodies but they get old and that’s not a good idea; you can love beautiful souls (minds) but they die so that’s not a good idea. But, if you love beauty, then that’s absolutely safe. It’s eternal, and it’s always beautiful from every angle at every time. That’s the strange move Plato makes. That certainly does make everything safe and getting rid of the risk and the suffering. That’s what I don’t understand about Buddhism where they want to get rid of everybody’s suffering. Suffering is part of the game.
Nietzsche thinks suffering is a big deal important thing. The point isn’t to try and eliminate suffering. The point is to try to get meaning. The Buddhists seem to me to be ready to give up meaning and say that everything is meaningless and empty in order to get rid of suffering.
One of the tenants of Buddhism is “joyful participation in the sorrows of life.”
I like that. That’s good. Clearly there is this other side. The Dali Lama is in a joyful happy mood all the time apparently. But they get there by this strange path by denying the eternal, solid significance of everything. In the end, it opens them to something. I’m not sure what to say about Buddhism.
I wonder if it’s three parallel strands. You have Buddhism, Plato, and Judeo/Christian, which I’ve heard you say is different. I get that to a point. But, when we put it in this afterlife business, it still leads us to where we are now – “It’s all going to be okay so you don’t have to play very big.”
Plato got, I would say, corrupted by Buddhism. He got this idea about loving the beautiful and forgetting about the emptiness of all finite things like bodies and souls. And, the idea of the souls coming back, he got it all from the Buddhists, I bet. The Christians got it from Plato. It comes from Neo-Platonism I think. They certainly didn’t get it from the Jews. It’s not clear at all, I bet, if you look at the Bible, what Jesus means by giving them eternal life. He doesn’t say they’re going to sit up in a row for all eternity contemplating God and singing hymns.
I think, and we keep coming back to this, you are having to deal with the people who are the normal Christians who have to face this way their life has become very safe and leveled and boring. That’s what Kierkegaard and Nietzsche thought and I don’t see any reason to deny it. That’s why when I teach Kierkegaard who’s qua Christian, it’s the Christians in the course who get the most upset because Kierkegaard wants a Christianity that’s risky through and through and gives you no guarantee that there is an afterlife, and claims and assumes that that’s how it was in the original Jewish/Christian community.
Later Plato’s stuff comes in maybe with Augustine in 300 A.D. or something. It’s not my problem in the work I do. I sort of enjoy the weird effect that teaching Kierkegaard has on the Christians who are all puzzled and upset and drop the course sometimes. But, I am worried about something. There are these Christians like Martin Luther King. He did what he did strictly because he was a Christian. But, that he believed he was going to have an afterlife didn’t make what he did any less risky. Somehow he was willing to die for it. His faith enabled him to take big risks and do big things. I don’t know what to say about that.
I don’t know what it feels like to say it’s all going to be okay in the afterlife if you don’t do anything bad. There are people I know who are full of love and compassion and go out of their way to make the world a better place. But, there is a kind of leveling, numbing, Christianity, there’s no doubt. And they’re millions of people in it. And Kierkegaard and Nietzsche hate it. And, I would hate it too if it were on my horizon but it isn’t.
Let’s take if from another angle then. Starting from Plato and on to the Romans and into modern life, we’ve become machines to each other. Is that another cause for our malaise?
Now we go from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Heidegger. And Heidegger’s claim is that we now think of ourselves as resources to use ourselves and everything else efficiently. As I say to my classes, if you ask, “What are people in the world here for?” the Christians could have said “to serve God” and the Greeks could have said “to do something glorious that people will sing of you after you do.” What would we say? We would say “to get the most out of our possibilities.”
And, that’s an entirely different picture. One thinks of oneself as a resource to optimize. This is always so funny to me because I can give the Heidegger arguments against us, but if there was ever anybody in the world who considers the self a resource to optimize, it’s me. We’re back to that again. Every minute I want to be doing three things at once. Life for me is just eternal multi-tasking. But, I’m probably missing something important.
Heidegger says I am. I sort of see that. He thinks there is a way of being quiet at the center so that whatever occurs happens around you and there is a focus to what is going on and it’s no longer a question of efficiency. Heidegger has this picture of what he calls “things thinging” which gets translated by a philosopher I like a lot, Albert Borgman, as “focal practices.” His favorite example is something like a celebratory meal which isn’t efficient like eating a T.V. dinner at the time you want in front of a program you want. It’s getting all these people together and doing a lot of work that requires a lot of excellence to prepare the food and using a white table cloth. And, then people feel, if it works, that all the outside things that they normally worry about disappear, and, for a while, there’s this special independent world created.
My favorite movie that shows that is Babbette’s Feast, which I show to the class. My favorite writer about that is Virginia Wolfe in Into the Light House. Mrs. Ramsey gives a dinner in which they come in all bickering about politics and business and so forth, particularly the man. But, by the time they have enough wine and get to the main course, they forget all that and the thing becomes, what she calls, “eternal.” It’s clear what Heidegger and Virginia Wolfe are reaching for. In Babbette’s Feast they say that Babbett, who made the feast, is an angel. They can’t help but reach for some kind of religious language.
But, that’s something we’re learning less and less how to have and how to do, and more and more everybody does have their T.V. dinner and listens to what they want on their iPod. I think Heidegger is probably right that it’s a better life if you can have in it these focal practices and not be driven by the idea of optimizing and getting the most out of your possibilities all the time.
Maybe I think – not that I have any special insight into it – that it would be nice to have a life where you’re doing this optimizing and getting the most out of your possibilities some of the time but you’re open to one of these wonderful things when it happens like Thanksgiving dinner or it could just be being alone in the woods or something. And, you can stop wondering how that’s useful, how that’s helping you get the most out of your possibilities. I don’t see why one couldn’t do both. Maybe I do, but not very much. I’d like to do it more.
I think maybe you do when you are writing a paper or a book – this requires very deep thought on your part. I think at those times you’re somewhat removing yourself from the hurly burly of life and awaiting your muse.
That’s good. But, when I write things, it’s kind of a fascinating hassle. I write 20 drafts to write a paper. I don’t know what I’m going to say. 90% of what I begin with is thrown out by the end. I think it’s when I give a good lecture. That’s more like a “thing thinging.” For a while when it works, everybody forgets everything but the question we’re talking about. I forget everything for sure. I remember when I first started teaching, I was so struck that after I taught for an hour I couldn’t remember where I was or what I was doing or anything else. I had just lost touch. That doesn’t quite happen to me anymore, but somewhat. So, anyway, if I do it, that’s when I do it. There’s nothing efficient about a successful lecture. It’s a different dimension.
Anyway, Heidegger is very worried that our culture has, step by step, arrived at a condition in which we want everything to be flexible resources standing by as he puts it “for further ordering.” Heidegger died (1976) before everything being digitalized came along. But, now, every picture can be changed and sent by email, and everything can be turned into digital and sent around and reconverted. Everybody thinks that’s just great and the more megabytes the better. This is very strange. Heidegger thinks that if we do that we lose a sense of those other focused kind of moments of meaningfulness and togetherness because they aren’t switchable-around and optimizable and efficient.
We’ll feel guilty about them. We’ll feel like, “Wow, I did that, I had this dinner and it was really fun. But, think of what I could have been doing if I was at my word processor.” Or, “I play with my kids and that seems very important, but I better be using games that increases their brains so that they get more efficient use of their possibilities. We can’t just play some foolish game.”
That is weird about our culture. People should cultivate these other kinds of practices, but they are hard to do because they require more work. To do a dinner and get everybody together at the same time and to actually select and prepare the food requires skill and time. So, it’s looking like it’s something less and less what anybody will do.
Heidegger is generally pessimistic of whether we will be able to be saved by the things that can gather us and make worlds. He thinks what’s interesting about a dinner when it works is that it becomes a self-contained world. People get the most deep and moving and significant sense of themselves and what’s worth living for in moments like that. What people are really good at is making and preserving worlds, and, when they treat themselves as resources to enhance their possibilities, they’re denying their capacity to make and preserve worlds.
How do you feel the current psychological climate fits into this? I’m thinking particularly of how it seems like they don’t even want to talk to you anymore. They just have this prescription for you. Just take this drug and everything will be okay.
I had some guy from Florida who was hearing my lectures on the web and sending me emails and finally came and met me. He was a therapist and was feeling so unhappy about this tendency in therapy to turn into just giving people the right drugs. I guess it’s the attempt to find some technological fix for people’s problems. It certainly seems wrong-headed, though for some people it’s important. There are better ways of helping people than giving them drugs so they’re not miserable. I can’t believe that these drugs can make people positively joyful and creative.
I don’t think they do that but they level them off - Takes the edge off.
They keep them from being anxious and depressed.
But, wouldn’t existentialism say that your anxiety or depression, or better, despair, is key to a powerful life.
Right. But, there must be real pathological anxiety and despair and depression, and it may very well be due to neurotransmitters doing bad things. But, it’s this blanket use that’s troubling. This general use of the drugs is really unfortunate, I agree.
Can you explain this idea of nihilism and how does that affect the common man?
Interesting. Let’s look at what nihilism is. Kierkegaard says it’s when all the significant differences between, let’s say authorities and people who aren’t authorities - parents and children, teachers and students, success and failure - everything gets leveled. Why does it happen and what does it really mean? It’s got to do with this notion, again, that nothing seems worth taking risks for or dying for. Why are we like that now? Kierkegaard thinks, but I don’t know what to make of it, that it’s because of too much reflection. If you sort of analyze things and reflect on them, you do this sort of thing of saying, well, “You’re all going to die anyway, and you can’t really believe what anybody says anyway, and everybody’s just out to get what they can.”
He thought that attitude was very bad and important. It goes back to the whole philosophical tradition. He thought it goes back to Socrates who wants people to reflect on their lives. This is interesting. If you reflect in this rational, detached, way that Socrates did, you discover that there’s no good reason for doing anything. You undermine the whole tradition which can’t stand up to rational scrutiny and which made it look like there’s very good reasons for doing things, namely the same reasons our parents and heroes of the culture did them. Socrates undermined all that.
Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, I believe, think the Athenians were not wrong in thinking Socrates should be banished. By the way, it was his own fault that they killed him because they offered him banishment. Philosophical reflection is a bad idea because, if you think you can find some basis for why you should live, why you should be moral, why you should do what you do – any kind of rational basis, you discover finally that there is no basis. You can always keep saying, “Why? Why? Why?”, until you undercut everything.
I guess our tradition is unique, perhaps in doing this, because of Socrates and Plato and this whole idea that you should examine your life and justify your beliefs and not believe anything or do anything that you can’t examine and justify. Kant is the big hero of that. Since there’s nothing that you can ultimately justify, if that’s true, then all this examining and demanding justification is going to end up cutting the ground completely out from under you. I think that’s true.
I think there might be two reasons for nihilism. On the lower level is what Kierkegaard thinks is the call of the media, which is the cynical, belittling, undermining of everything and suspicion of people’s motives. Then there is this high level of undermining which probably doesn’t happen to people unless they take philosophy courses – or I’m not sure where else - where they discover that everything is ungrounded.
The point would be not to let that paralyze you. Kierkegaard thinks that in a way the nihilism and leveling of everything is a good thing, oddly enough, because, when everything that you would have thought you could lean on like the tradition or reason or the institutions or the heroes of your culture, all of that has been undermined as ungrounded, then, you understand that there’s nothing left but to make some risky commitment just because it grabs you. It’ll free you to lead the kind of risky, worth living, life.
Nietzsche talks about positive and negative nihilism. Negative nihilism is that nothing means anything so there’s no reason to do anything or take any risks and it ends in a kind of passivity. He thinks Christianity contributed a lot to that. Then there’s active nihilism which is seeing that nothing is grounded frees you up to take risks and live dangerously and invent new worlds and new selves – he’s got all this whole list of wonderful new things that people can invent who are active nihilists. They don’t expect that there’s going to be any good argument for why you take anything seriously or believe anything. You can’t find that kind of argument.
So, you’re saying too much self-reflection leads you to nihilism?
Yes, if that kind of reflection takes the form: “Why should I be doing this?” “Why is this justified?” “What’s the argument for this rather than that?”
On the other hand, just going along with the flow isn’t the answer either, right?
That’s right. Neither. So what happens? Maybe we should say reflection is a good thing, but not for the reason most people think it is. Reflection is going to give you this effect of cutting the ground out from under you and showing you that you have no reasons for what you’re doing and no reasons for what you hope for and no reasons for being happy about what you get. When you’ve done all that reflecting and you’re in that nihilism, then you’re in this free zone. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and, I guess I think, too, that reflection is probably an important thing to get people out of the kind of zombie-like rut that they’re in, not because it’s going to contribute to anything positive, but because it’s going to undermine everything they believe in. That would be interesting.
Maybe it goes back to what we were saying earlier. It comes somewhat to your motivation. Socrates was very self reflective. He hoped to be victorious over the ungroundedness, right? He wanted to beat it.
He didn’t really find any successful answers. But, he was looking, he said. He certainly thought complacency and tradition were not satisfactory answers. It’s hard to say whether he really thought that if he worked hard at this that he would get some ground or whether he really thought that what he had to do was simply cut the ground out from everybody because he couldn’t stand hypocrisy and smugness.
Maybe Socrates is somewhat in the tradition of Kierkegaard.
It’s possible. Kierkegaard wrote his doctoral dissertation on Socrates. He thought of Socrates as a hero who risked his life for his views and who undermined everything and understood that the Athenians were right to banish or kill him from their point of view that he undermined their society. Kierkegaard admired Socrates. Nietzsche didn’t. Nietzsche really hated Socrates. He thought he was a decadent, sick person because he didn’t like the body. But, let’s leave Nietzsche out of it because his view of Socrates is all mixed up with Plato.
Kierkegaard had a much clearer view of the distinction between the two. What Nietzsche didn’t like about Socrates is really Plato, which I now think is the Buddhist side of it. That’s the story that you shouldn’t be involved with the body and particular things because they’re all empty. Plato puts in Socrates’ mouth this idea that dying is a good thing because you get out of this being stuck with this body and this world. Nietzsche hates that. But, I think Socrates is probably okay in this funny roundabout way. He did undermine everything by critical reflection.
In combating nihilism, perhaps you need some degree of self-reflection which will lead you to the realization that it’s all ungrounded. And, then, there’s the critical point. Do you keep reflecting to try to fix that or do you now let go of reflection and live life?
Good. That’s the right thing to say. All these people living these lives of passive nihilism where the lack of any grounding is their excuse for not committing to anything and having a routine life - critical reflection will reveal that passive nihilism. Then, you should give up reflection and plunge in and do something.
What’s your take on the Freudian/Jung approach to try and help people?
About Freud I don’t have a clear view. I guess I’m very influenced by Michel Foucault, though, who is pretty skeptical of Freud, pretty much thinking that it’s a kind of crazy view that has had its day and now looks pretty bizarre to lots of people, and it looks pretty bizarre to me. It’s amazing how in the ‘50’s, when I was a graduate student, Freud was taken very seriously not so much by philosophers but by people in the literature departments and so forth. Foucault makes a pretty devastating case against Freudian analysis and the whole idea of having a science of sexuality. I think we can sort of write off Freud.
I’ve always disliked Jung. He has this whole thing we haven’t talked about, which I have no sympathy for. That is this other kind of leveling that all the different religions are really about the same thing and everybody’s got the same archetypes. I just hate all that. It seems to me if you have any understanding of the various religions, you see how incredibly different they are. Buddhism and Christianity couldn’t be more different. Christianity makes time the place where everything important happens. Buddhism thinks time is not even real. Jung manages to find a level of description so general and so vague that every interesting distinction is gone.
I think it’s nihilism of another sort - nihilism of the sacred. Everything sacred gets to be the same. I argue this more with Houston Smith who also thinks that all the world’s religions are somehow climbing the same mountain from various sides. He tries to find the invariant features across all the world’s religions that they agree on. You get a non-interesting list. What they agree on is so uninteresting compared to what they disagree about, like whether you should have an infinite commitment for something finite and whether suffering and meaning is what it’s all about. So, I’ve always been allergic to Jung.
Do you think there’s an inner self?
I don’t think my being has any center. I don’t see how you can be open without being empty. I don’t understand how to put together some human potential inner stuff with this openness. I don’t think you find – this is just Kierkegaardian, Nietzschian, Heideggarian stuff, there’s nothing to find inside yourself which is your special talent or destiny or whatever. When I think of how I hated the computer people and how I devoted my life to that for 20 years, what I followed was my sense of outrage.
How does one get out of the cautious, leveled life? Do they have to go through the nothing – the emptiness and meaninglessness? Is that the road?
I sort of think I must have done that when I was two. Then, I do think maybe you do have to go through the, “It’s absolutely hopeless; my life will never amount to anything; my life is completely insignificant; failure for sure. Maybe you do because otherwise maybe you’re stuck with your limited but nonetheless positive sense that you’ve got something already that you’ve accomplished and some identity and some respectability and you get stuck defending it. That’s certainly the Werner Erhard intuition that you’ve got to go through the nothing. I don’t know. You don’t think that.
I don’t know. I’m in the question about it. I don’t know that you need to be as dogmatic as he is.
There’s something wrong with the way he (Erhard) does it - that you have to keep the nothingness in mind all the time. I thought about what was wrong with it when I was reading Tracy Goss’ version (The Last Word On Power). She’s always got such a clear version of these people – clearer than they are. What’s good about it and what’s bad about it shows. And, boy did it look bad because it undermines the commitment on the other side. That’s the trouble with the Werner approach.
How are you ever going to follow your love or your commitment to lead the black people to justice or something which you could get after you stop being cautious and boring if you’re constantly reminding yourself that it’s all going to come to nothing and you’re going to be in a grave and they’re going to throw dirt on you? That seems somehow a wrong way to put it. It’s totally nihilistic and you can’t get out of it. You’ve got to put that behind you. At least the way she tells the story, that’s the most important thing that you’ve got to hold on to it all the time because it’s so liberating. But, it’s so liberating that it stops you from being committed to anything, it seems to me.
That’s the big weakness in Werner’s story. It was never clear what you were supposed to do once you saw the meaningless of everything. He’s got no sense of this business of making yourself open to some calling, some vocation, something that is significant to you and staking everything on it as if it mattered.
Except to him. He wanted people to give him that.
That’s right. In the vacuum that idea creates, he comes along and says, “I’m the source and make me the center of it.” And, then, of course, do what?
“Whatever I tell you.”
Yeah, exactly. Just be a kind of servant in the est organization. It all gets very sick and wrong, and it all has gone wrong because of this way you’re supposed to hold on to this moment of nihilism as the ultimate truth of it all. I kept writing in my copy of Tracy’s book whenever she then would say something like, “You declare a new possibility, you start a new company, you start a new world,” and I keep saying, “Why don’t you just take opium?” – I mean what difference does it make once you’ve seen this?
It’s okay to see it, right?
Yeah, that’s right. You have to see it. It’s not the seeing it, it’s the not letting it go. If you just hold on to it, it looks like you’re in a kind of passive nihilism in which nothing makes any difference and that doesn’t make any difference either as Werner says, in which case I keep wanting to know, why do anything? Why even work for Werner? Why not take opium? Why not sit and watch T.V. all day? You’re stuck in passive nihilism. He can’t get to the active Nietzsche nihilism which puts it behind you. How it does that I don’t know. That’s a deep question.
How is the nihilism presented in Werner such that you’re stuck in it? How should it be presented so that you can leave it behind and turn into an active nihilist? It’s supposed to be nothing that you’ve got means anything. That’s just a guess. That’s the right thing to get people to see. But, that nothing that you could ever have or that anybody could ever have could ever mean anything? That’s the strong version that once you got that it’s hard to see why you should ever do anything.
So, what you want to do is to get people to see, I’m not sure, the emptiness of their life and their way of doing things, their caution and their wanting to be respectable. That’s what you want to get at. But, you can get it by having them see that it’s ungrounded and doesn’t mean anything. But, you don’t want to get to the conclusion that just because you’re going to die and because everything is ungrounded, that nothing could in any way be significant. That’s all I can say. What do you say?
Well, it’s tough because rationally even that strong version you say does seem true.
Oh, it does. It is true that in a certain kind of meaning and significance, your life comes to an end and everybody will forget you. And if you think significance has to be strong that way – that’s the Plato and Buddhist trick - then, what you discover is that there couldn’t be any meaning or significance. But, what you really discover is there can’t be any meaning or significance of the kind you wanted. That’s how I teach it. Now I remember. Heidegger believes that anybody who believes in any kind of intrinsic meaning is leveled by anxiety in his picture. But, getting rid of intrinsic meaning doesn’t mean getting rid of all meaning and all significance. It doesn’t have to last forever to be significant. That’s the move that gets you out.
Is it created meaning?
Exactly, created meaning. It’s meaning that lasts as long as your passion lasts, meaning that is forever for you, which is all the forever you need. That’s what you want. It’s this Buddhist/Plato kind of nihilism that Werner has too which assumes that, for something to really be worth doing, it has to be eternal, it has to be completely secure, it has to be recognized by whoever matters. All that’s just wrong. That’s just a certain understanding of significance. You’ve got to give all that up. There isn’t going to be anything like that. But, you mustn’t let that mean that there isn’t going to be anything that’s recognized as worth doing, that’s worth taking risks for.
I sometimes wonder how much of how we operate has already been answered by Darwin. We’re programmed to want to perpetuate ourselves and our species. If you just go along with that, it’s not a real powerful life because you get back to the being careful so I don’t hurt myself. But, maybe there’s a way it’s inexorably driving us forward.
People like Werner and the Buddhists are pretty strong and good at trumping that by giving you the strong experience that contradicts the genetic thing. It may be then that you’re right that the reason people don’t just curl up and die and go smoke opium is that having children and preserving them is something that we want to do and can’t help doing. But, somehow for you and for me, too, the Darwin thing doesn’t explain what’s really a powerful life and a life worth living.
All it says is that you don’t want to die and you would like to procreate and have kids and make sure that there’s enough food on the table, and that makes people go on. But, there’s something else that Darwin doesn’t understand that makes people go on in this powerful way. Now, our question is, “What enables them to do that once you’ve used positive nihilism to liberate them from going on in this passive nihilist negative way?”
Maybe it ultimately comes to an existentialist choice akin to choosing faith and God?
Yes, I think that’s great. I think that’s right. I think it’s ultimately got to do with sacred, religious something or other. That there is somehow in the universe this power to grab people and motivate them to do great things that doesn’t come out of their inner something or others and doesn’t come out of their culture because it’s their own unique thing. We don’t know what it is, but people call it a calling. That might be all you can say. It seems to trump Darwin and Buddhist nihilism. It seems to be a great thing. There does seem to be this power.
Kierkegaard talks about “being transparently grounded in the power that posits you.” It’s very abstract – not even a capital ‘P’ on ‘power’. It points to this thing we can’t say that trumps evolution and biology and nihilism and everything else – if you’re lucky - if you’re called. Well, it’s not just luck. If you’ve been willing to go through all the kind of nihilism that gets all this other stuff out of the way and give up all your belief that you’re already important and respectable and dignified and better protect it; if you’re able to give all that up, then I suspect that there is something that will call everybody. That’s certainly what Kierkegaard thinks. Once you’ve gotten to the point where you’re open to a calling, there’s always a call. Heidegger says conscience is always calling you without words.
What do you think of this notion of redefining oneself? For example, someone is in our course and we work with them to see that they’ve been living their life out of a premise, “There’s something wrong with me I don’t matter.” We work with them to see that’s not true. It’s just a premise they’ve been operating from. Therefore, there’s a sense of a new beginning. And they’ll come out with new statements like, “I am a powerful woman,” or something like that. They really feel it and it’s poignant in the room. My caution to them always is that that’s only going to really become true in your public life. It’s not something in your mind. Your power will show up because you’re empowering other people. What do you think of this notion of a person authoring a new possibility for themselves?
I guess it really happens. First question is: Does it last or is it just the kind of thing that happens in a workshop? How many of these people actually go on to be powerful? Well, that’s hard to track, but some do?
Yes, it seems so.
And they did it without your having to push them through total nihilism and Werner darkness. They would have to really believe very much that they were insignificant and worthless and that nothing they are ever going to do is going to amount to anything. They’d have to believe it and then, I don’t know. I don’t really understand it. It’s not my picture. They shouldn’t be able to just declare it. That’s wrong.
I would predict that the high will go away and she’ll be just as bored and boring as before. Why? Because it isn’t something that you choose, it’s something that chooses you. You can’t just declare it. All you can do is get in the position in which you’re available to some specific thing. Being a powerful woman is the wrong sort of thing. It’s like organizing all the neighbors to make sure the earthquake preparedness is ready – that’s being a powerful woman. And you just sort of suddenly get called to do it. The other thing sounds very hokey and “fakey” and abstract.
Sometimes I use the analogy of the Declaration of Independence. They got together and they articulated a new possibility and they said it was real because they said so. Like with my caution, they didn’t keep it to themselves. They went out and enrolled world in getting it and then it became true.
That’s a good analogy. That’s Fernando Flores’ terminology – declaring a new possibility. I’ve always been suspicious of it, but in some domains it certainly works. It seems to work in the Declaration of Independence, and it seems to work with Jobs in declaring a new company like Next. But, the thing with the powerful woman isn’t enough. It needs to be more concrete. The people who wrote the Declaration of Independence didn’t declare independence in general. They declared right from the start that these 13 states were independent of England in this way. You can declare something if it’s the sort of thing that becomes true by a kind of consensus and if it’s concrete enough to become true and to fail. That’s another way to put it.
I tell my class that declaring yourself to the future triumph of the proletariat won’t do because it’s something that is not concrete enough to fail. Declaring yourself that you’re going to make the black people in Alabama able to take the bus, that’s pretty risky and that can succeed or fail. And, you can do it. Martin Luther King did it.
I’m not against declaring it. I now get clearer. I’m suspicious of declaring it in a vacuum first and then finding the filling. That doesn’t feel right. That doesn’t mean it won’t work. I think it would work better if they were able to declare they were going to do something specific. It will sound more like New Year’s resolutions and that’s not the right way to have it either. It’s got to do with an “I am” instead of an “I will.” “I am the one who’s job it is to do such and such,” I guess -not just that I’m not going to eat sugar anymore or something.
For those of us who are instructors in this kind of work, I would think one of the things we have to be careful of is to not impose our artificial authority on people. Is there any other recommendation you have for us out in the field?
This is probably the same challenge I have as a teacher. I’ve got the same thing about not imposing my authority on the students who look at me with kind of awe and want to imitate me. I try to not give them any content they can copy or imitate. They can imitate the openness if they can do it, but nothing else. What other risks are there?
For example we talk about not getting moralistic with people as far as should and shouldn’t.
That’s good. That’s right. You can’t turn it into an ethics of rules of what’s good and bad to do because that’s one of the things that you’re trying to undermine – their habit of comfortably trying to do what they should do and be good and respectable. But, it does look like a kind of meta-ethics. Heidegger always had this problem trying to say, “I’m not doing ethics, but I’m making a distinction between authentic and inauthentic.” It looks like you’re recommending nothing specific, but we recommend you lead a life that’s powerful and alive. I guess when it’s that abstract maybe it’s okay to recommend it and be moralistic. You can’t help it. Heidegger couldn’t help it. These slobs who are just sort of sitting around taking no risks and living no lives and will die without having done anything exciting - you can’t help but feel bad about them and feel that they’re doing something wrong. So, that’s not a problem. And, you’re not going to give them rules about moral things. That would be more of the Christian sort of thing –the easy answers as in, “The priest knows whether you should do it or not.” The other thing is that you shouldn’t make yourself a kind of god/guru and take over all the authority it gives you and I know you’re not doing that.
What are some relatively beginner books you would recommend somebody look into who wants to learn more about what we’ve been talking about.
You might have had one in your hand. That Charles Guignon one on authenticity I bet is a good one (On Being Authentic). He’s a Ph.D. student of mine. Charles Taylor has also written a little book on authenticity that I bet is very good (The Ethics of Authenticity). The Present Age by Kierkegaard is accessible. The positive part happens in a very obscure place in the text where it’s all in metaphors about jumping into the deep water. Maybe somebody who’s sensitive to metaphors will get it. After all Kierkegaard knew what he was doing. Finally after saying that this is a totally nihilistic and reflective age and that’s going to destroy all meaningful differences comes this part about how you just have to jump in and go for it and then you will finally be dragged into the right relation to something that grabs you.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy would be good for the dark side of not appreciating the reality of your death until it’s too late. If people are sensitive enough, maybe Twilight of the Idols by Nietzsche would be good. It’s more accessible than most Nietzsche and relevant because it’s so anti-Christian and less reliant on the random aphorisms. It seems to have more sustained arguments. There’s an interesting novel by somebody who changed their life completely by discovering how sinking to the very bottom led her to discover something so important in her life that she had to go on. I like it because it brings it down to the lowest level (An Unknown Woman: a Journey of Self-Discovery by Alice Koller).
I really appreciate your time and think this will be helpful to a lot of people.