Monthly Archives: July 2013

Sartre’s Look

Let’s talk about Sartre’s concept of the Look. He brings it up in Being and Nothingness as part of a discussion on solipsism (the idea that I am the only conscious being in the world and everyone else is just a group of robots). His discussion of the Look has been called a “phenomenological proof” or an “ontological proof” of the existence of other people. Here’s the basic structure:

1) We experience shame.2) The experience of shame is such that it requires another conscious being to be observing us.
3) Therefore other conscious beings exist.

The conclusion (3) follows from the premises (1) and (2). Obviously premise (2) is the most controversial – does shame really mean other consciousnesses have to exist? – and it’s the one he spends the most time on.

Sartre’s Look echoes Hegel’s master-slave dialectic in a bunch of important ways. Like Hegel, Sartre tells a little story to set it up. We’re looking through a keyhole, he says, lost in observation, when we notice somebody behind us. Immediately we jerk back in shame, embarrassed to have been observed. Have you ever been relaxing in a park by yourself and been annoyed at joggers or dogwalkers intruding into your moment? It’s the same thing.

What happens when I am looked at, for Sartre, is that the world drains away from me towards the newcomer. The objects that only existed in relation to me before now exist in relation to this other person; she is judging them and observing them, just as I did, and worse still – she is observing me as well, as if I were part of the landscape. Our negative reaction to this experience is the feeling of shame.

Unlike Hegel, Sartre does not think two people can Look at each other in comfort and mutual recognition. For Sartre, it’s always a contest – I Look at you, you try to turn it around and Look at me (turning me into an object), and I fight back – with a winner and a loser. According to him, human relations are defined by this conflict. It’s why he famously wrote that hell is other people.

Does Sartre’s argument make a convincing proof for the existence of other people? It’s certainly not an airtight deductive proof. Still, I think it’s good reason to believe in the existence of others.


George Eliot, Ethicist

In response to the claim that if you deny you have an immortal soul, you have no reason not to murder and steal and so on:

We can imagine the man who “denies his soul immortal,” replying, “It is quite possible that you would be a knave, and love yourself alone, if it were not for your belief in immortality; but you are not to force upon me what would result from your own utter want of moral emotion. I am just and honest, not because I expect to live in another world, but because, having felt the pain of injustice and dishonesty toward myself, I have a fellow-feeling with other men, who would suffer the same pain if I were unjust or dishonest toward them. Why should I give my neighbor short weight in this world, because there is not another world in which I should have nothing to weigh out to him? I am honest, because I don’t like to inflict evil on others in this life, not because I’m afraid of evil to myself in another.

The fact is, I do not love myself alone, whatever logical necessity there may be for that in your mind. I have a tender love for my wife, and children, and friends, and through that love I sympathize with like affections in other men. It is a pang to me to witness the sufferings of a fellow-being, and I feel his suffering the more acutely because he is mortal-because his life is so short, and I would have it, if possible, filled with happiness and not misery. Through my union and fellowship with the men and women I have seen, I feel a like, though a fainter, sympathy with those I have not seen; and I am able so to live in imagination with the generations to come, that their good is not alien to me, and is a stimulus to me to labor for ends which may not benefit myself, but will benefit them. It is possible that you may prefer to ‘live the brute,’ to sell your country, or to slay your father, if you were not afraid of some disagreeable consequences from the criminal laws of another world; but even if I could conceive no motive but my own worldly interest or the gratification of my animal desire, I have not observed that beastliness, treachery, and parricide are the direct way to happiness and comfort on earth. And I should say, that if you feel no motive to common morality but your fear of a criminal bar in heaven, you are decidedly a man for the police on earth to keep their eye upon, since it is matter of world-old experience that fear of distant consequences is a very insufficient barrier against the rush of immediate desire.

Fear of consequences is only one form of egoism, which will hardly stand against half a dozen other forms of egoism bearing down upon it. And in opposition to your theory that a belief in immortality is the only source of virtue, I maintain that, so far as moral action is dependent on that belief, so far the emotion which prompts it is not truly moral-is still in the stage of egoism, and has not yet attained the higher development of sympathy. In proportion as a man would care less for the rights and welfare of his fellow, if he did not believe in a future life, in that proportion is he wanting in the genuine feelings of justice and benevolence; as the musician who would care less to play a sonata of Beethoven’s finely in solitude than in public, where he was to be paid for it, is wanting in genuine enthusiasm for music.”

George Eliot, from Worldliness and Other-Worldliness

This is so wonderful an example of philosophy I hardly know what to write about it. Eliot is clear: her writing has the novelist’s light touch. She arrays her arguments quickly and concisely, spending no more time than she has to. Much of it has been hashed and re-hashed by atheist writers today; still, I believe there to be two really interesting points in there that are still new.

Firstly, examine her comment:

The fact is, I do not love myself alone, whatever logical necessity there may be for that in your mind.

This is the real argument against the theist and the egoist: by ‘real’ I mean the argument we use in our own heads, not the arguments we bring up to convince others. It has a beautiful empirical simplicity. “You say I ought not to love anybody but myself; well, for whatever reason you are wrong, because I do.” Logical necessity is a poor way to account for the motivations of human beings.

Secondly, consider this line:

In proportion as a man would care less for the rights and welfare of his fellow, if he did not believe in a future life, in that proportion is he wanting in the genuine feelings of justice and benevolence; as the musician who would care less to play a sonata of Beethoven’s finely in solitude than in public, where he was to be paid for it, is wanting in genuine enthusiasm for music.

Here Eliot compares “genuine feelings of justice and benevolence” to “genuine enthusiasm for music”. The comparison is well-taken!  When Kant argues that the reluctant philanthropist is more moral than the enthusiastic philanthropist, he is simply wrong. We ought to aim for a genuine enthusiasm about caring for others; we ought to discover within ourselves a deep upwelling of empathy – Eliot calls it “sympathy” – for our fellow human beings. Any ethical theory that is uncongenial to genuine enthusiasm (utilitarianism, deontology, I’m looking at you) should be viewed with the utmost suspicion.

Against Stoicism

For a long time I was a big fan of Stoic philosophy. I liked the idea that we had free reign over ourselves, and that we could choose how to react to even terrible events. More, I liked the idea that we should ground our happiness on the strength and success of our will. It seemed to do what I was promised philosophy would do: disconnect our happiness and well-being from the unpredictable hardships of the world. I still like (although I’m growing more and more skeptical about) Socrates’ claim that no harm can come to a good man.

But If I’m going to reject utilitarianism and deontology for inadequately modelling human psychology, it seems I have to reject Stoicism too. Stoicism is predicated on an idea of the mind as composed of reason and passions, where cold reason can exercise control over the unruly passions. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is correct anymore. I follow Nietzsche now in conceiving of ‘reason’ as just another passion, or more accurately a combination of passions. I follow Kierkegaard in believing that you cannot mold yourself into being the person you want to be by main force.

I still think Stoic philosophy is useful. Momentary emotional impulses are and should be under your control. To a large extent (here I carve out a tentative exception for mental health issues) it is your decision how you react to terrible events, and a sufficient effort of will can go a long way towards avoiding suffering. But I no longer believe Stoicism is a suitable principle for everyday life. Grief is an appropriate response, at times, just as joy is. Biology isn’t destiny, except when it is.

Game of Thrones and Anarchism

I’ve recently been reading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series and loving it. It’s a fantasy epic (yes, I know, keep reading) in the style of Game of Thrones: an attempted ‘realist’ depiction of social and political life in a sword-and-sorcery world. I think it’s superior to Game of Thrones in this respect. The major theme of Game of Thrones, if you’ll allow me a moment of first-year-lit-student-reductionism, is the relationship between brutality and power. In Westeros and elsewhere, the only people who manage to wield power for very long are the inhuman; ‘normal’ people in power are either killed like Ned Stark or rendered inhuman like Catelyn. George R.R. Martin’s political world is dominated  by ruthless schemers who, if not outright sadistic, are at least willing to commit atrocities when it suits them.

Abercrombie’s First Law series, on the other hand, offers a view of political life dominated by incompetence. Those with power invariably make stupid decisions which others bear the cost of. Political events are ‘decided’ by a muddle of equally stupid decisions and luck. Attempts to maneuver and scheme are largely futile – the schemers simply don’t have access to the information they’d need to make good decisions. The only person in the series who actually succeeds in his political designs does so through a ridiculous power asymmetry, not through any political intelligence (or, god forbid, ‘legitimacy’.)

Both series reflect truths about the world. Power is, in general, handled by those morally and intellectually unfit to use it. However, I lean towards the First Law series. The ‘game of thrones’-style chess game, in which the bloody struggle for power is likened to a battle of minds, always struck me as unrealistic. In general I distrust the ability of institutions to make decisions based on reality, and here’s why:

Information is systematically filtered as it travels up a hierarchy, because power relationships distort communications. Everyone self-censors in talking to a superior, so that the person at the top of a hierarchy lives in a completely imaginary world. According to Wilson, rational behavior requires accurate feedback about the actual effects of one’s decisions — i.e., two-way communications between equals. A decision-maker who is cut off from accurate feedback by the unidirectional communication in a hierarchy becomes functionally insane.

via Kevin Carson. This is exactly how it works in the First Law series: decision-makers are fed self-aggrandizing or ass-saving reports by their underlings, so that by the time they get to make a decision they’re cut off entirely from the real world. The decision they make is then filtered down ten levels of command, by which point it is a) unrecognizable and b) well out of date.  The result is a pointless, bloody mess.

The kind of organization that could win the game of thrones would be, as Carson suggests, composed of equals who can communicate accurately with each other. I wonder: will we see an anarchist collective roll over Westeros in the next season, to finally melt the Iron Throne into a set of metal pipes? We can only hope.

Hegel, Sartre, and Identity

So much philosophy depends on what Hegel called the “master-slave dialectic”. It’s central to the arcane field of phenomenology, and informs a lot of the Continental (read: European) tradition. Once you get it, so much drops into place – unfortunately, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is really tough, and most phenomenological philosophers seem to delight in obscurantism. I’m going to try explain clearly what Hegel meant and why it’s important.

“Dialectic” just means “conversation”. In this case it’s a metaphorical conversation. You could think of it as a series of stages of development.

Stage one is the “primal” state of consciousness. Very early childhood is a good example of this, but the same state also occurs to us each day (although it’s less prolonged). In this stage, your mind perceives the world as a set of objects for your disposal. You’ve got no concept – either you’ve forgotten or you haven’t learnt yet – of other people. What this means, Hegel said, is that you’ve got no concept of yourself either. You’re acting on animal instinct, on reflex, just letting your impulses drive you. Sartre’s example was of a man peering through a keyhole at a fascinating scene – we might think of somebody spacing out in front of the television – completely lost in what he’s observing, not thinking about himself at all.

What happens now? Well, somebody else ‘shows up’. Whether they physically arrive or you just learn they’re there, it’s a massive shock to your system. Sartre called it an “internal hemorrhage”: the moment when you get thrown back into your body, when you realize somebody’s been watching you peer through the keyhole and you go “oh right, I exist as a self, and there are other people who aren’t me.”

This begins stage two. Hegel and Sartre agreed that our initial reaction (after the shock) is hostility: we can’t handle the fact of other people, the idea that they have ideas and thoughts just like ours that we can’t alter. Think of an immature child who can’t understand that he’s not getting his own way. This stage is characterized by conflict – we ‘attack’ the newcomer, physically or just psychologically, trying to exert our control over them and bring ourselves back to the comfort of stage one.

Somebody’s going to win this conflict. Now we enter into the master-slave relationship, where the winner dominates the loser, forcing them to acknowledge the winner’s superior power. Not just power but identity: the winner is trying to erase the loser’s status as a human being, to treat them like a slave, like something to be used. We can see this dynamic in plenty of abusive relationships, domestic or work.

But stage two is unstable. It’s unsatisfying to have your power acknowledged by somebody you’ve forced to acknowledge it. If your slave is an extension of you, using them is as unsatisfying as masturbation. So, according to Hegel, this eventually collapses into stage three: mutual recognition. In stage three both people acknowledge each other’s humanity and appreciate each other as a person with thoughts and feelings and a complicated inner life. In this way they’re both properly satisfied.

Again, this isn’t some account of the beginning of human consciousness thousands of years ago. This process occurs to us multiple times a day, every day. In a very real sense Hegel’s series of stages is an account of the way empathy works. It’s also an account of the way consciousness works – it needs to be around other consciousnesses in order to be a ‘self’, to have the boundaries that define it.

When I reflect, I find this accounts for my experience far better than the traditional model of selves existing independently and maturing over time.  Think about the people you recognize as human and the people you don’t. Think of the conflicts in your life and how many of them can be expressed as conflicts over identity.

Statism as Privilege

The concept of privilege is one of those rare concepts that is inherently political. Like ‘micro-aggression’ and ‘othering’, it refers to a process that depends upon being invisible. If you acknowledge – I mean really acknowledge, not just pay lip service to – your privilege, it to some extent ceases to function. All these little manifestations of power function best under a cloak of silence; they are instances of bad faith, of doing what you know deep down is wrong, the kind of action you can only perform while some part of you looks the other way.

This is all very basic theory. I’d like to argue, though, that if you live in a first-world country you cannot properly recognize your privilege without being in some sense an anarchist. I believe that everybody knows that their government – American, Australian, British, whatever – does truly horrible things, is ruled by truly horrible people. We joke about the untrustworthiness of politicians all the time, as if we could laugh away the fact. I believe that if you try to imagine the daily suffering of people in the countries we have invaded, the detritus of the wars that are “over” but still exercise ruinous power over people’s lives, people like us – if, through a titanic effort of empathy, you put yourself in the position of the workers in the countries we dominate economically, or even of the people degraded, starved, raped in our prisons, many of them in there for crimes which should not be crimes – you must acknowledge the fundamental harm of government.

And yes, of course government does good things, of course it assists people who are not privileged along many important axes of oppression. I do not want to obscure the fact that government aid is literally keeping many sick and disabled people alive day-to-day, and that thoughtlessly crying “smash the State!” is an expression of privilege too.

I am making a basic utilitarian estimate here, as well as an analysis. My tentative estimate is that the suffering caused by the State overseas is numerically far worse than the suffering it prevents domestically. I am not married to this conclusion. The analysis, which I am committed to, is that governmental aid programs are not dependent on foreign wars or harmful economic policies. The purpose of foreign empire-building is not to help the unprivileged citizens over Here; the purpose of domestic aid is to placate the citizens so we can get on with the important process of empire-building over There.

In short, being born in a first-world State is an enormous privilege. An intersectional analysis cannot simply reduce it to a manifestation of class. What this privilege consists of is not being subject to foreign violence, whether military or economic. Seen in this light, all the cheerleading about our wonderful countries and governments is a little grotesque. It has the flavour of a Klan rally or a Men’s Rights march.

Power Accumulates Power

One of the foundations of anarchist thinking is that power accumulates power. Think of it as entropy, or perhaps a group of magnets in a backpack. As the backpack jolts and shakes, the magnets rattle around and snap onto each other, and once attached it’s a real bastard to get them to let go. That’s how power works. If you’ve got a little power your natural instinct is to use it to get more – after all, every goal you have requires power to accomplish – and it’s easy to blur the lines between power over yourself and power over other people.

It’s easy to see how this works in the case of wealth (one of the most obvious sources and markers of power). Income gaps breed income gaps as the rich use their resource advantage to cement their privileged position. The poor, by contrast, are disadvantaged. Their only advantage is numbers, and technology – see: machine gun – can level that field quickly. The best weapon of the worker is the union and the ability to strike. How awful is that, that the worker’s only tool is withholding the labor he needs to live? And yet it’s undeniably the natural state of things.

Obviously this applies to all of us. Privilege accumulates privilege: if you’re a white man, it’s much easier for you to become wealthy, for instance. Wealthy men have much better time getting and using education. This is one power dynamic that doesn’t require the State – although it helps – to enforce. We’re all doing it, every day we refuse to critically examine and relinquish our own social power. How can we expect the State to give up its power if we won’t give up ours?