Heidegger thought that any ordinary object or scene could arouse fear and anxiety in someone by signifying nothingness in some way. The idea had previously been put forth by Pascal, who famously said that nothing frightened him more than the cold, empty spaces of infinite dark sky. But over time this fear can give way to perspective, as when one contrasts this emptiness with the “fullness” of culture and social life.
Was the experience of spaces and presences long ago different from what it is today? Did perception yield a feeling that no longer exists? Are we entombing ourselves in a vast super-computer, living a non-life? The thought crossed Elias Canetti’s mind: “A tormenting thought: as of a certain point, history was no longer real. Without noticing it, all mankind suddenly left reality; everything happening since then was supposedly not true, but we supposedly didn't notice. Our task would now be to find that point.”
“That which is yet to be born may be nothing, but at this stage it is at its utmost,” writes Costica Bradatan. “Its nothingness is fuller and richer than any ordinary existence. To fall into existence is to enter time, and with time comes decay, aging and death.” This idea unites many disparate strands of thought, from Zen to Gnosticism to meditations on late-modernity.
“What if no one or nothing were worth saving anymore? What if the path to truth lay in absconding from society, in refusing to be “someone,” to play a part, strike a pose, sell or consume, to click on anything or even to speak out? A negative volition, or velleity: the sense that life can no longer be consummated through the established social channels; that the world as it exists inhibits meaningful experiences rather than produces them.
“Over the last 20 years, the number of Americans reporting they have “no one to talk to” has doubled. Despite Facebook, emails, cell phones, blogging, and text messaging, social isolation is at an all-time high and is expected to get worse. These are among the findings of Addressing Loneliness, a recently published collection of essays from scholars around the world.
“Our sense of identity is in large measure conferred on us by others in the ways they treat or mistreat us, recognize or ignore us, praise us or punish us,” writes Philip Zimbardo. “Some people make us timid and shy; others elicit our sex appeal and dominance. In some groups we are made leaders, while in others we are reduced to being followers. We come to live up to or down to the expectations others have of us…We often become who other people think we are, in their eyes and in our behavior.”
“In any age,” Jacques Barzun observed, “life confronts all but the most obtuse with a set of impossible demands: it is an action to be performed without rehearsal or respite; it is a confused spectacle to be sorted out and charted; it is a mystery, not indeed to be solved, but to be restated according to some vision, however imperfect. These demands bear down with redoubled force in times of decay and deconstruction, because guiding customs and conventions are in disarray.” For Barzun, the way out consisted of “a resolve to fight the mechanical.”
The most important function of art and science, Albert Einstein once claimed, is to awaken “cosmic religious feeling” in the young. This feeling, he said, is difficult to elucidate to those without it. It does not correspond to any anthropomorphic conception of God, and no church can be found whose central teachings are based on it. Those who experience it “feel the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought.”
Why do people do reprehensible things? What accounts for the sort of malice one reads about in the news every day – not only homicides and extreme violence, but acts of deviousness and treachery, unscrupulous business practices, rape and spousal battery? Why do the alarm bells of conscience go off in some heads but not in others? Across the last sixty years philosophers and psychotherapists have offered insights into the subject. Here is a sampling of them.
Over the last quarter century the experiment in cyber life has gone off with little to no resistance. No sooner did the technologies arrive than the entire world embrace them. In the early days of the web, however, and in the years preceding it, there were some who sounded an alarm. “It’s an unreal universe, a soluble tissue of nothingness," wrote one expert. "While the Internet beckons brightly, selectively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this non-place lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where – in the holy names of Education and Progress – important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued."
Do people really hunger for freedom, as so many thinkers over the ages have asserted? Or does freedom terrify them – is it something they would rather renounce? “The common man,” Van Wyck Brooks once observed, “has no sense of having surrendered his will: he regards it as a mere pretension of the philosophers that man has a will to surrender. He eats, drinks and continues to be merry or morose regardless of his moral destiny: to possess no principle of growth, no spiritual backbone is, indeed, his greatest advantage in a world where success is the reward of accommodation."
The offhanded remark is often criticized for being reckless, but sometimes it bears the stamp of an unpleasant truth. Consider, for instance, how the former CEO of the French TV station TF1 described his company’s business: “Let's be realistic. TF1's job is to help Coca-Cola shift product...For an advertising message to get through, the viewer's brain has to be receptive to it. It's the aim of our programs to make that brain receptive, to entertain it and relax it, to prepare it between two messages. What we sell to Coca-Cola is receptive human brain time.”
“At some point in the near future there will no longer be a distinction between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality,” writes Ray Kurzweil. Technological change will be so rapid “that human life will be irreversibly transformed.” Brains will be uploaded to the Internet. The act of death may become a choice rather than a necessity – an option or changeable setting in a clone’s operating system, according to Jean Baudrillard. The Singularity, says Kurzweil, is upon us.
It is commonly assumed that the person who takes the initiative in relationships is the one who is in command. But this is not true, argues the existentialist Donald Wainwright: “The audience is always one up on the performer. They are the passive judges. The performer must please them. The initiative, the responsibility for the success of the occasion rests on the performer…If ‘A’ must please ‘B’, how can ‘A’ ever be in command?”
“Nothing is more common today than the complaint that the ideals raised by fantasy are not being realized, that these glorious dreams are being destroyed by cold actuality,” Hegel wrote in one of his influential works. “We must not fall into the litany of lamentation, about how the good and pious often fare ill in the world, while the evil and wicked prosper.” Is there a chink in the armor of this reasoning, or might Hegel actually have a point?
There once existed a world that spoke to reflective thought and the creative imagination, Henri Lefebvre tells us. A world that held a certain mystery and mystical dimension, that was “serious, deep, cosmic.” It disappeared, and its loss was felt particularly by exceptionally bright minds. Is such a world recoverable? How can the search for it be undertaken without introducing false paths and “smuggling in all manner of dehumanization”?
A generation or two ago, many young adults emerged from college with their idealism intact and their interest in dead poets and philosophers undiminished. In recent times that’s changed: now money, career, and access to the rich and famous trump any inkling to be better rounded and a little wiser. What these aspiring careerists need is not a lecture about their false choice, but an ironist’s guide to competing in the rat race.
Privacy "protects us from being misdefined and judged out of context in a world of short attention spans, a world in which information can easily be confused with knowledge," observes the legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen. "In such a world, it is easy for individuals to be victimized by the reductionist fallacy that the worst truth about them is also the most important truth."
“We do not meet one another as persons in the several aspects of our total life, but know one another only fractionally, as the man who fixes the car, or as that girl who serves our lunch, or as the woman who takes care of our child at school,” C. Wright Mills once observed. “Pre-judgement and prejudice flourish when people meet people only in this segmental manner. The humanistic reality of others does not, cannot, come through.”
“Some of the most spirited and vocal defenders of evolutionary theory, such as Richard Dawkins, use their stature as scientific spokesmen as a bully pulpit for atheism,” writes Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich in one of his recent works. Evolutionists who deny cosmic teleology and argue for purposelessness, he tells us, are “not articulating scientifically established fact; they are advocating their personal metaphysical stance.”
The assumptions of early postmodern irony were idealistic; it was once thought that diagnosing social ills and poking fun at them led the way to freedom and a better existence. Over time, however, irony and irreverence themselves became a cultural norm, and the effect has been enervating rather than liberating. The problem, as one observer put it, is that irony does not offer anything good to replace the hypocrisies it exposes and mocks. No high principle or ideal is any longer invoked in the enterprise. The joke, the put-down, the spoof is everything.
"The profession of philosophy did not always have the narrow and specialized meaning it now has," William Barrett tells us in one of his influential works. "In ancient Greece it had the very opposite: instead of a specialized theoretical discipline, philosophy was a concrete way of life, a total vision of man and the cosmos in the light of which the individual's whole life was to be lived. These earliest philosophers among the Greeks were seers, poets, almost shamans."
"From being well-adjusted for its own sake, what a short step to becoming overadjusted: the public-relations personality of public smile, private blank," the poet Peter Viereck observed forty years ago. In a depersonalized, machine-era, the only personal heroism left is unadjustedness, Viereck argued, but not just any unadjustedness: not that of the bohemian or the maladjusted, but that of the "unadjusted value conserver," of someone who "rejects superficial norms not for rejection's sake but to serve valid ones." Such an orientation has "two reciprocal sides: adjustment to the ages, non-adjustment to the age."