Monday, May 22, 2017

Gatsby's Tragic Failure

Gatsby was "great," and he was tragic. It isn't clear to me what made Gatsby “great.” He had money (lots and lots and lots of it); he was not a hypocrite like his antagonist, the man who had married Daisy, the woman Gatsby loved; he had class. What did Gatsby know besides how to get rich? He knew he loved Daisy, but he thought he knew more than he did: he thought he could overcome absolutely any obstacle with his love of Daisy, and hers of him.

He fought in WWI. Certainly the trenches were not where the life was free. It seems Gatsby had more than one thing in common with the Austrian-born philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was a decorated war hero!

Wittgenstein was born into wealth; Gatsby achieved it. Wittgenstein gave his huge fortune away. Gatsby lost his only when he died. Wittgenstein wrote a key philosophical tract in the cataract of mustard gas and machine-gun barrages. Gatsby wrote one of the most famous love letters in US history under the same circumstances.

Wittgenstein died of prostate cancer; Gatsby died with a bullet through his heart, both literal and metaphorical. Cupid was not a sympathetic character in Ovid's “Metamorphoses.”

A life with Daisy was still a possibility at the moment of Gatsby's death, as far as we know; and Wittgenstein probably would have known the modal logic of it. Maybe Gatsby ran up against the laws of the world: the fates will intervene to prevent time travel, to prevent bringing the future back, into the past, and the past into the future, the way Gatsby wanted to do.

In the midst of avarice, hypocrisy, sin and riches, he remained a good man; but what made him great? It was not his hope; I can't see how hope is in and of itself great. His sources of wealth may have been questionable; the bootlegging certainly showed the hypocrisy of his nemesis, Buchanan, Daisy's husband and “the polo player.” Gatsby “went to Oxford” the way I “went to” two well-known universities; and neither of us claims to be “a Such-and-such man,” implying we are the products of a full education there. When pressed, he admitted this about himself. He was forced into honesty. He lost his temper, nearly punching Buchanan in the face; but would Buchanan have pushed Daisy out of the window, beside which she and Gatsby were standing, if she had said she'd never loved him?

What was the importance of her saying she never loved him, anyway? It was required, by Gatsby, so their five-year separation would not be tainted by time's passage. Nothing happened during those five years: that was something Gatsby needed to know to believe one could relive the past. Gatsby insisted it be done; everything must go according to his plan, or it would not be perfect, and so would be nothing. It was not enough for the present to be what it was: the past must have been the present and vice versa.

Gatsby's last word was: “Daisy!” Wittgenstein's were, "Tell them I've had a wonderful life." Which had the greater achievement: Gatsby, who loved Daisy but perhaps perfection more; or Wittgenstein, who loved philosophy but perhaps perfection more? I see Wittgenstein's achievements through a glass darkly, and in the end it seems his life and love of philosophical perfection were enough for him. I see Gatsby's hope outrunning the possible as quixotic desperation, not altogether a bad thing.

Near the end of hope, and in the midst of catastrophe, with Daisy's automobiling encounter with Buchanan's mistress having just occurred, Gatsby flexes his plan, and is willing to run away with Daisy. If he had just run away with her when she told him she wished they could do it – but Gatsby's obsessiveness led to his rigidity, and if it wasn't perfect, it was not acceptable to him; he insisted on his own way, even to his and Daisy's ultimate detriment. It was his tragic flaw, his seeking of perfection and of the world's going according to his plan up to the last and smallest detail. At one point he makes a gesture with a finger, of a straight, diagonally ascending line in the air. "My life must be like this," he says. He didn't know about "what [success] really looks like." 

The relentless drive and single-mindedness that allowed him to become “The Great” Gatsby was his undoing. He and Daisy could have run away a number of times. But love wasn't enough for Gatsby.

Friday, May 19, 2017

“The Rules Are Too Complicated”: Thoughts on commun(icat)ion

“Everyone” was playing Dominion, a strategy board game. The rules are too complicated for me. The group inviting me to play seemed puzzled by my refusal: “I don't have fun playing those [strategy] games. The rules are too complicated.”

Maybe the purpose of rules is to break them; hang in there with me! This platitude is a saying (in a Heideggerian sense I mean) that deserves consideration, and the answer, “rules hinder efficiency because they are not perfect” is emphatically not what I'm going to get at.

Breaking a rule is not just an act of freedom, it is an act that opens up freedom for others. When one cannot follow the rules, whether because one doesn't know them, believes them to be unfair or nonsensical – or because they are impossible to follow – one has no choice but to become open to the possibility of performing as one would like to: to express preference, to engage in questioning and/or critique, to seek out help or clarification. I'm reading Karl Jaspers' chapter on communication, in his Philosophy, which led me to wonder.

At a pharmacy, there may be a sign that has words written on it, like, “Go no farther toward the counter until called.” The sign is a command without justification – and without expressed consequences; it is a command to obey “or else.” Or else what? The freedom of the pharmacist, and of the patient, become possible, once an impatient or curious patient goes beyond the sign without permission, in a way they are not if the patient obeys the command with little besides the ubiquitous “or else” attached to it; new possibilities of expression, human relation, and shared understanding open up for both.

Try it! It doesn't have to be a pharmacy. Establish rapport with someone behind the counter, obey the sign the first time, when dropping off a prescription, an order. When picking it up – and it may not be advisable to do what I'm recommending in this paragraph – you can step beyond the sign, enough to have disobeyed it. Someone will admonish you for breaking the rules, almost certainly, verbally or some other way. Society becomes commerce – “or else.”

Without rules, we might not be able to exist as the “advanced” society (relatively advanced, technologically) we make up, in a mid-sized or small US city. I expect this post to be relevant to most people in the US. No god made these rules. In systems of rules, we often encounter the boundary line demarcating the transition from human rationality to human communication in the existential sense Jaspers discusses. It is up to all involved to decide what to do next.

What was I saying in “The rules are too complicated?” Any number of things. When a board game has complex rules, are we pushed toward each other more than in games with simpler rules? Was I expecting disappointment at the prospect of what I thought would happen were we to run up against my breaking the rules of the game? There are many ways to play games, not all of them conducive to genuine human relation.

Rules are (sometimes) meant to be broken in order to push us toward each other as human beings and then to relate to each other in a space of free communion. This did not happen for me at the pharmacy; and it did. The man behind the counter, with whom I'd established rapport, treated me well; the pharmacist or technician behind glass did not.

I encountered a person who chose what actions and what form of human relation would fill in that unspoken, ubiquitous “or else.” I did not discover the game players' “or else.” What might it have been? What do we avoid when we accept the commands without asking, in effect, “or else what?”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Writing and Plato's “Phaedrus”: "Book learning" and "life experience" as two sides of the same false coinage

Writing gets a beating from Plato's “Socrates.” Not only is it said to impair memory – the words written on a human “soul” are far better remembered – and not only can the written word not reply – the written oration or rhetorical piece cannot reply – but what comes from reading is only the image of knowledge and wisdom.

It seems fitting that three subjects are brought together in Plato's dialogue, “Phaedrus”: love, persuasion, and writing. These combine in love-letters and in love-poetry; and also in love of wisdom, philosophy.

Perhaps “Socrates” was mistaken as far as we are concerned in the age of the tweet and blog: these forms of writing allow the piece of writing – the author – to reply. Clarification can be asked for, of the author; the author can acknowledge or can repudiate criticisms. Arguments among “texts” can flourish. Even in Socrates' day this would have been possible for the lettered among Athenians. A messenger bearing a letter would have provided quick communication across the polis. Even when the author of a text has died, those who spoke with him or her – either out of love or out of fear, out of hate or out of indifference – might carry the words written by the author on their souls. Writing would be, among other things, advertisement for a person, for a soul, for philosophy, poetry, or, as Plato writes of laws here, for them as well. The written word becomes the speaker's “shingle” like that of a doctor of old. “Like my writing? Come and talk with me!”

The letter and the email, text message, social media post, or telephone call are at issue for us twenty-first century Americans. “Socrates” would probably have condemned the telephone as well! What do all these forms of communication have in common? They are forms of mediated communication. While they can involve the interactivity “Socrates” says he sees missing from the written text, they involve distance, lack of co-presence of an immediate, physical kind.

A previous post, the first, probably, if I haven't removed it, deals, casually, with what I will call “information grubbing.” This seems to be precisely the kind of thing “Socrates” warned of, that readers of information – most of the written word that is not pure fiction – will acquire the semblance of wisdom only. Information, as knowledge, has its uses; wisdom is to know these uses; not all “information” is to be used – not everything written is to be believed. Acquiring information; reading “other people's recipes,” as a character in the 1993 film starring Will Smith, Six Degrees of Separation, confessed he'd done before passing them off as his own; learning the nomenclatures and vocabularies of disciplines, can give the appearance of knowledge, and with it the semblance of wisdom.

The absence of a philosophical approach, combined with information grubbing, will lead, I say, directly to the kind of “book learning” that so many decry; but those I hear decry it are guilty of the same sort of thing, the naive taking-as-given of one's first impressions without subjecting them to criticism. It is the absence of the will for “an attack on one's convictions,” which are “more dangerous enemies of truth than lies” (wrote Nietzsche, over 130 years ago), which leads to each “side” criticizing the “semblance of wisdom” of the other. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Homo Ludens at Work and Play

 Art can allow the city dweller to escape the “world of production,” the term Richard Schechner uses in Performance Theory, to denote the world that is not the world of playful performance and ritual. The worlds of sport, art, play, ritual, exist alongside the mundane world of production. These worlds of performance are not “window dressing” but are necessary for the survival of a culture. Performance can as what seems to be a poignant question at times: “Why can't all be play?” Why does it seem the world of production must be different from this other, parallel world? Different and, as common sense seems to have it, less fun?

Let us grant Schechner's claim, that this world of play or play-acting, existing along a continuum of dead seriousness and plain pretending, is as necessary for a culture's survival as are the activities of production: growing food, building and maintaining lodgings etc. Collingwood and Danto argue that art is something other than entertainment, and is something other than decoration and embellishment. I have read an art work shows what it is like to believe something. We will leave aside detailed consideration of the interdependence of the play and work worlds, while allowing that each may make the other possible. It is as if a culture's members cannot simultaneously work in the world of production and consider this production from an artistic, playful, play-acting, or ritualistic point of view, and art in the "showing" sense is necessary to provide this view of the world of production, in a shareable form, to give solace to the workers; they may not be able to escape the world of production as often as or as much as they would like, and it soothes them, gives comfort to them, and is reassuring to know that their experience of the world of work has an articulate voice. “Misery loves company,” and the miserableness of the requirement of a culture, that some of its members work, is mitigated by the company of the comparatively “sacred” world of the artist.

For many, “art” as experienced is likely to be limited to – beyond museum trips – to such activities as watching television, listening to pop music, and advertising “art works” such as logos and jingles. Television provides, during prime time, some artist-entertainers' views of the profane world of work, and that assumption is a large one; the television is not always done in earnest, authentically. The worker, seated before a sixty-inch-diagonal flat-screen television-computer with 5.1 surround sound, streams into his or her “leisure” world the laugh tracks of 1950s middle-America and the acting-school-honed voices of – as Edward Abbey noted were brought even into the wilderness, decades ago, by vacationers – Los Angeles. The miseries of the world of production are ameliorated because someone else appears to have seen a vision like the worker's own, of this misery. Once the worker has “rested” before the television – whether this is supposed to happen in a living room or a trailer towed to a campground – equilibrium returns to him or her, and the world of work will always welcome a fresh start from a “refreshed” service vendor, barista, doctor, pharmacist, motorcycle mechanic, IT manager, or new college graduate on the “job hunt.”

Hobbies are recommended often, it seems, as a fix for the mental dis-ease of the post-/modern worker. Growing tomatoes, it is believed by some, will alleviate the suffering of a business analyst who is sometimes tormented by her boss. The showing what it is like to believe something, of Collingwood, allows the sharing of unfairness, injustice, hope, and grief among people who have never and may never meet. The world of art, play, play-acting, and ritual, would seem to be the sick-bay of the human spirit; the world of production requires the other world, to keep its workers in suitable psychic shape to work indefinitely.

At the same time, the players, play-actors, artists, and ritualizers, need the support of the world of production; without its fruits, both literal and figurative, they would starve to death within days. Each world depends upon the other, and one person can move between them, now planting tomatoes for a hobby garden, now compiling business reports on the tastes in music and clothing of college students.
The world of work, like spilled water, seems to spread and infiltrate as much as, and into as much of everything, as is possible in early 21st-century United States salaried positions. “Work-life balance” and checking email on weekends, and working through “vacations,” as well as eating lunch at one's desk, are said to be common, for example. The smartphone or vanishing Blackberry-branded handheld device makes the salaried worker instantly available, “on call,” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Ernest Dimnet pointed to the encroachment of the business world's language into the private world of personal-letter exchanges. Nietzsche, before him, opined that the language of business in Germany was corrupting his fellow Germans' use of the German language.

Citing Johann Huizinga's Homo Ludens, Schechner points out the suggestion of paradox in the simultaneous “non-serious” nature of play, and the player's being absorbed in the play activity “intensely and utterly.” We can see this same apparent paradox expressed by Friedrich Schiller, as: “[M]an only plays when he is a man in the full meaning of the word, and he is only completely a man when he plays,” and perhaps more famously, “[M]an is never so serious as when he plays.” “From the standpoint of productive work, it is silly to put so much energy into the 'control of the ball' or the 'defense of 10 yards of territory' " (p. 11, Performance Theory, Schechner). It is an interesting question, why we take play activities so seriously at times – one partial answer to which may be: “For the fun of it.” Play may have intrinsic value; the world of production has extrinsic value.

“Flow” is a term popularized by Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi to describe a state similar to or identical to that of the absorbed player. Flow appears to be a way to transform work into play. Employers appear to be attempting to intrude into the world of playful performance by bringing “play” into the world of production, tying it down, and convincing the worker that he or she is free and is engaging in free play. Can this be the case, and if it can be, is there any permanent, insurmountable difference between the two worlds discussed here as Schechner's “world of production” and the world of playful performance? Does all work involve performance? Does performance involve work?

A key element in – if not they key element in – “optimal experience,” Csikszentmihalyi says, is the achievement of or attainment of this flow state. Flow would seem to unify the dual worlds of production and of performance. To the world of production and its workers, the linking of optimal performance with optimal experience signals “dollar signs.” “I can get paid to play!” exclaims the worker. “I can convince my workers they are playing and not working! I can pay them less, and if they don't agree with the new plan, and don't feel as if they're playing – “Motivation 2.0,” intrinsic motivation, the “borrowing” of the style of open-source software developers and Wikipedia denizens – I can get rid of them and find someone I can convince, someone who is more autotelic in my service,” says the worker's bosses.

Maybe the worker participates in the world of production as much because it will “put food on the table” as because it will “buy” “free time,” during which the worker can leave the world of work to become the player, and experience flow. Whatever benefits a workplace has, in which “play” and flow are valued, there would seem to remain the catastrophic danger of a total conflation of work and play, and with it the emergence of a whole society as a (dystopian) “total institution” like a prison or a mental hospital. The most important thing to recognize about play is that it is not “for” the “recovery” of the worker; it is not justified by its existing – as if it were a luxury – “for” the world of production to appropriate or even for it to benefit from. Play is self-justifying activity and requires no further justification. The world of production cannot justly lay claim to it or to any part of it.

On Heidegger's Essay, “The Question Concerning Technology”

Hold my mouse and watch this: Surfer Interview, which figures into the conclusion of this lecture

Near the middle of the twentieth century, German philosopher Martin Heidegger, one of the twentieth century's most widely known and influential philosophers, both generally and as a philosopher writing about technology, wrote an essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” that is of importance for the philosophy of technology. This essay has been dealt with in depth by the American philosopher of technology, Don Ihde, in his book, Heidegger's Technologies: Postphenomenological Perspectives. I don't understand yet what “postphenomenological” means for Ihde, beyond its being his attempt at a synthesis of phenomenology and pragmatism, two opposing approaches in philosophy; but the book is written in English...he seems to take it for granted that the reader already knows what postphenomenological perspectives are going to be, and how to relate them to Ihde's previous, phenomenological writings on technology – in, for example, his book, Existential Technics. Heidegger wrote a lot of phenomenology, which will not in itself be important to understand for our purposes here. Common sense and, mostly, “plain English” – not “Heideggerese,” where we have “the thingliness of the things that are thinging” and so on – will suffice.

Mention must be made here about Heidegger's involvement with the Nazi Party during WWII; we will also not delve into Heidegger's life, which would involve what stance to take regarding his membership in the Nazi Party during WWII, and his subsequent expulsion from his career as professor after the war. Let's do as phenomenologists might do, and “bracket” this personal history, so we can look not at the man but at one of his philosophical works, before asking the question, on our own time and in our own time, what relation his Party membership may have to his philosophy, specifically to his views on technology.

What is this “question concerning technology” Heidegger is talking about? Well, let's start with: "What is technology?” Is technology applied science? What leads us, having never yet read Heidegger's essay, to say, “Yes”? We may reason that, of course, Yes, because science, we say, precedes technology, that is, science is historically prior to technology – and here Heidegger is looking not at the invention of the wheel, for example, but “modern,” “industrial” technology, which brings into being such things as hydroelectric power stations and coal-fired electric plants – and, notably, as Heidegger was writing near the middle of the twentieth century, the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Today, we can point to solar panels, wind turbines, and computers, and I'm not sure how Heidegger would view these things as they exist and are used today. I'll leave that for us all to think about after we're finished here today.

Heidegger agrees with this; such artifacts came after scientific discoveries that made their construction possible. Heidegger also disagrees. Technology, in its essence, is not a “making” but a “revealing,” that is, technology is a mode of truth, but it is not the whole truth, it is not, Heidegger says, the only mode of truth. It is not “merely” applied science; it is a relationship human beings create, a relationship with and orientation toward the entire world, human beings possibly included, he says. Technology is not the products of science, and it is not technological objects; it is a stance human beings take, and, with echoes of Heidegger's notion of “thrownness,” – we find ourselves in a world “always already,” and we did not choose this prior to out existence in it – the technological approach to truth-finding is a stance many of us in this room have probably taken already. This stance, the essence of technology, is ontologically prior to science, Heidegger says; it is a logical procondition for science. Furthermore, Heidegger points out that modern physical science is dependent upon modern technology; the two feed each other. The most salient example today would be the Large Hadron Collider, perhaps, a technological feat upon which parts of modern physical science are dependent for their moving forward.

Heidegger also says technology is not morally neutral; let's look at that. Heidegger disagrees with a common notion of technology's relation to science and with a common notion of its relation to ethics. Technology ipso facto has ethical implications. Technology is not a thing but an act. We, many of us, protest that technology and science are morally neutral in themselves. It is how science and technology are used, we may argue, that has ethical implications; it is the use of technological capabilities that is important, not the capabilities themselves. This apparently was the common wisdom in the mid-twentieth century, and, having held this view myself, after having acquired it when I was a child, I think it is the common wisdom today.

Heidegger warns against this. Yes, that is the operative word, “warns.” Heidegger writes in this essay:
Technology is not equivalent to the essence of technology. When we are seeking the essence of “tree,” we have to become aware that what pervades every tree, as tree, is not itself a tree that can be encountered among all the other trees. 
Likewise, the essence of technology is by no means anything technological. Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely represent and pursue the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which we particularly like to pay homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology. [pp.311-12, Basic Writings]

[Play part of Tom Lehrer song about Werner von Braun. ]
It seems to be saying that “von Braun” of the song was defending his role, in creating the V-2 rockets with which Germany bombarded England during WWII, by appealing to this common wisdom about technology's neutrality. The creation of a V-2 rocket, “von Braun” of the song was saying, was itself not a morally reprehensible act; rather it was other Germans who were responsible, not he, for the use of the rocket and ensuing human casualties and physical and emotional devastation its use caused. The choice in how to use the “morally neutral” weapon – or even the choice before that, of how to use von Braun's scientific knowledge, to make a functional V-2 rocket – was where the ethical responsibility lay. Lehrer appears to have disagreed – he lambastes Von Braun – and his popularity suggests many others were in agreement with him.

Heidegger sees “the decisive question” as: “Of what essence is modern technology that it happens to think of putting exact science to use?” Leaving aside any further development of the concept, “essence,” which is often used in a technical (philosophical) sense, let's assume we know what Heidegger means by it; let's talk in “plain English.” We'll say: “The essence of something is what it 'really is'.” The essence of technology, for Heidegger, is a stance humans take, toward the world, in which we view the world and everything it as “standing-reserve”; I think we can safely say “resource.” We, when engaged with technology as its users or its creators, no longer see a tree as a tree in itself and for itself; we see wood, shade for new residential or recreational areas, paper, fuel to use for warmth or electricity, or to power a locomotive. We see a resource to be used for our own ends. This “enframing” (Gestell) of the world as standing-reserve may extend, Heidegger worries, to our enframing even ourselves and each other in the same way. Here are a few terms now in common use:
  • Department of Human Resources
  • manpower
  • man hour
  • man month, as in The Mythical Man Month
  • wetware, that is, human beings considered as cognitive resources
  • brain drain
In all of these, it can be argued that the term is “correct,” that is, the term is true as far as it goes, and it should be obvious also that the term is not the whole truth. It seems that Heidegger's worry was prescient, or he may have been behind the times; he himself mentions human resources. “Scientific management” techniques may have already led to some humans “enframing” themselves and others as “resources,” as standing-reserve, though Heidegger argues that humans escape being merely standing-reserve. Given some of the absolutely deplorable actions of his fellow Germans during WWII, this should have been obviously false, and it seems incredible that he failed to see this, and he published the text in 1954, long after WWII. Such examples serve to demonstrate what the enframing of human beings can lead to; but does it necessarily lead to such enormities?

In the technological approach, we don't see the world as “world” but as resources that are ready-to-hand for our purposes. We view them as having no purpose, Heidegger says, but to be put to our use. This view was exhibited by Oscar Wilde when he said something like, “Nature is a magical place, where birds fly about un-cooked.” With enframing as a viewing of nature as nothing but a resource for human use, it is not clear that viewing human beings ourselves, as standing-reserve, as mere means, is a morally neutral act. It goes against Immanuel Kant's dictum: that such a use of human beings as mere means to an end is morally wrong. Its wrongness may be argued, but it is not clearly a neutral act. It would appear to be the essence of what it is to dehumanize human beings, and would therefore be inhumane, a term with moral implications. It is not a new idea with Heidegger, that having a certain attitude is morally wrong. The attitudes of jealousy, envy, pride, arrogance, vanity, narcissism, prejudice, bigotry, even “mere” intolerance, have all been widely condemned at various points in human history. It is the psychopath who views other humans as mere means for his own ends; it is not, ideally, the view of the beatified saint. Enframing goes against the ideas of humans and nature as having intrinsic value.

Technology, or, as comedian Sascha Baron-Cohen's character “Ali G” says,“tech-MOLOGY” – “is it good? Is it whack?”... Much in the way that the essence of comedy is not the sum of all jokes, technology, the essence of technology, goes beyond things. Comedy and technology are stances humans take with respect to the world and to each other, even to ourselves. They are views onto the world, ways of being in the world. There is a TED talk in which a woman tells of her experience of having a stroke, which temporarily changed her perception of the world, which in turn changed her longer term perception of the world and of herself and others. The issue arises – often, it seems to me, this is brought about by some change in our experiencing of the world, my favorite vehicle being art, about which Heidegger has written an essay – how should we or how would we like to experience the world, ourselves, and each other? The same question concerns modern technology. What do we want our relationship with the world, ourselves, and each other, to be in essence? We are able to choose our way of being in the world. Heidegger wants us to choose not blithely but deliberately and with wisdom.

I encourage each of you to read this essay. We are already, most of us at least, relatively familiar with a scientific, technological approach to the world. Each of us has a unique relationship to the world, ourselves, and each other; I leave you to consider the possible relationship to the world, himself, and to others, that the surfer (in the video I showed several minutes ago) might have, in light of Heidegger's terms “enframing” and “standing-reserve.”

What kind of similar thing might be happening with the surfer, who seems to be so immersed in the world of surfing that he is unwilling or unable to translate his experience of surfing waves, into academic English, but sputters in slang, much to the amusement of a television audience and Web denizens? What differences might there be between the “enframings” of: the surfer; an engineer attempting to construct a system for electricity generation from wave motion; a fisher on the shore attempting to cast a line past the breakers; a plein-air painter; and, finally, a shell-seeker walking the beach in search of intact, unblemished sand dollars?

I'd like to conclude with a passage from Heidegger's essay, “The Question Concerning Technology”:
Techne is a mode of aletheuein. It reveals whatever does not bring itself forth and does not yet lie here before us, whatever can look and turn out now one way and now another.Thus what is decisive in techne does not lie at all in making and manipulating nor in the use of means, but rather in the revealing mentioned before. It is as revealing, and not as manufacturing, that techne is a bringing forth... Technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing.

Aletheia is a Greek word for “truth,” which Heidegger sees, with etymological justification, in his phenomenological writings, as “a revealing.” Technology is not just a means to an end, it is a way of approaching and mapping the world. Philosopher Don Ihde comments on this passage:
Technology as a mode of truth assumes the overall shape of Heidegger's truth theory. “Technology is a mode of revealing. Technology comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where aletheia, truth, happens.”

Open in new window:

Truth for Heidegger is more complicated than a statement's “mere” correctness. Technology shows part of the truth by being “correct”; but, Heidegger warns us, to mistake this correctness for truth would be, in an analogy drawn by Don Ihde, like mistaking a part for the whole. Consider how the ontologies of the surfer, engineer, fisher, and beachcomber might overlap and where they might not. What differences in their individual experiences of the waves might these overlappings and non-overlappings lead to? That is something to consider as we make our ways through the world and encounter the “worlds” of others. The predominance of a technological view, a single way of getting at only partial truths, by way of mere correctness, should strike us – ironically, in light of the attempts by technologists to optimize – as a sub-optimal situation. Seeing is always a seeing-as, so it makes sense to see a thing as all the things it is that we can, and not only one aspect of it, if we are to be human beings in the fullest sense.

10 Steps, 10 Reasons to Blow Your Goddam Mind with Philosophy

Let's say you like learning about interesting or unusual things, and your favorite use of the printed word (or typed word) is to “gain information” (uh-oh). You're lost if you think more information will benefit you in some marvelous, interesting, and unusual way. Information is cheaper than water, easier to find, and yet rarely as clean. Read philosophy, and you'll really have something that others don't. It will help you to think better: not only will you learn more facts the further you go – including history, science, art, art history, computer science, linguistics, neuroscience, psychology – you will learn the structures of thought and “work out” your mind; you'll be able to re-/claim your mind and learn that an “intellectual conscience” is indispensable when dealing with information. You may have lost your mind and not know it, and I mean this in no clinical sense but in the sense that you may have already stopped thinking much of the time, though you may think you think.
Philosophy and poetry, poetry and love, love and awe, escape all explanation in terms of information; they are ways of being. If you can change your way of being, become philosophical, your information will be solidly grounded – yet is likely to seem more precarious than before! Better to be aware of this dangerous position than not to know it. I have been a fool and am still an amateur; yet I've learned this. If I can, you can too. Going from what I criticize – and, to some extent, what I exemplify here merely by writing on the Web – toward the frozen heights: this is information gathering, this is learning, creative destruction, power, progress.
When you read for information, you are almost certainly engaging in an incredible act of hubris and confirmation bias (see the Dunning-Kruger effect and an article by David Dunning). You are probably relying on authorities you can't properly evaluate the credibility of, to reinforce your belief – in what you already believe. That's not optimal! What's really smart is what Nietzsche admonished us to do: “A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions,” and, “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”
When you want to “assault” your convictions – let's say you've already decided you want to do this – you go like the sappers of old, under the infrastructure. You dig tunnels under the castle walls, supporting the existing edifice with wooden supports; you set up your ideological infrastructure for failure by giving it only tentative support – then burn the supports and allow it to collapse.
At least, that's what you do if you really want difficulty. Some smart guy, named Neurath, supposedly (information...), said philosophy is like rebuilding a ship at sea. By this the smart guy meant something like: “Philosophy is necessary for flotation.” The Ancient Greeks actually, literally, used philosophical presuppositions to build their ships, which led to all kinds of problems, curable only by Socratic irony; but philosophies are always being rethought, ships being maintained. To sail the high seas in an ancient wooden boat, you've got to replace the devil, plug leaks, rip up rotten planks, refit masts, do sailing jigs this author has never heard of. Just assume there's tons of stuff that needs fixing. So you don't sink, you've got to be careful.
“Merely” pick up a book by a famous, “controversial” philosopher, someone you think you know something about from hearing jokes and absorbing memes. Any well-known thinker, about whom you think you know things from sources like those, is ripe for the picking: because, if you've never read a philosopher but have only heard slander or praise of him or her – or, nearly as bad, have only read bits of them, or read about them in school or in popular books – you probably “know” a lot of things that aren't true; you don't know anything about them – if you're lucky. And you want to know. You're curious. You're smart. You want information. Yet it'll be “what you know that just ain't so” that's holding you back.
Read that Nazi bastard Heidegger's essay, “The Question Concerning Technology.” Read it and weep. As standing-reserve-coming-to-know-itself-in-the-world, it may seem as if you live in a dehumanizing prison of production, where you're only “valued” as a “resource,” and few people (if any) care whether you live or die beyond the resulting “loss of productivity.” That's probably true. This incursion of philosophy into your mind should send you reeling. For example, the “cost” and “loss of productivity” due to the severe mental illness schizophrenia was estimated to be over $155,000,000,000 per year in the US alone for 2013. Even if this is accurate, the toll exceeds that by mountains of money bags and human suffering. What is the interest, compounded, on the portion of the forgone $155,000,000,000 that might have been saved and invested? With a figure like this, it is within the error bars. What is the toll, in terms of human flourishing, due to the considerably increased prevalence of suicide among people suffering from the illness, 5% of whom die by their own hands? A “human resource” providing “man hours” does not “die” because it does not live; there is no such thing. Human beings exist, the very things eliminated, in Heidegger's view, by the dominant, technological stance. This is just a taste of how philosophy can change your life and your view of the world.
  1. Maybe for you “staying afloat” means being able to convince yourself that you're out-arguing strangers on the Internet – and anyone on the Internet whom you don't know “IRL” (in real life) is a frickin' stranger. If so, philosophy can help you; reading philosophy may just convince you that what you're really doing there is wasting your precious life. Every argument changes you, no matter how well you seem to be changing other people's minds. Reading philosophy is likely to repair some of the damage of arguing on the Internet; you'll be standing on a mountain top, when what you'd been doing was “rolling in the deep,” in the sewer.
  2. By reading ten of Nietzsche's books (The Gay Science three times), I got to know him about as well as, or better than, you've known anyone you've ever argued with on the Web without having met IRL [citation needed.] He could write. And he was the bomb – “I am dynamite,” he wrote. By reading Nietzsche, and learning about the pronunciation of his name, you'll come to find that you can't swing a hammer without knocking into someone who knows all about him and is completely wrong. This should aid in your argumentation; you'll be less likely to argue with strangers – in such an argument, everyone involved becomes a fool because we tend to stand up on our hind legs, or double down, and think we know something when we don't.
  3. If you're more of a passive Web-wanderer, intent on sucking up to information – oh, I mean “sucking up information” – then philosophy is for you. Of course, you may be the exception, the person who is a natural philosopher, like the young woman who goggled and held my book up to her head, implying she already knew everything in it; or who is a natural philosopher (read “scientist”) for whom philosophy is indicative of Very Bad Things such as inefficiency, imprecision, woo-woo, and worse. You may be neither of these. Philosophy gets a bad name, it seems, in the exact proportion that poetry gets a good name, though the people doing the evaluating are typically neither educated in, readers of, or practitioners of either poetry or philosophy. Every businessman is the “slave to some defunct economist,” and every factoid is embedded in some (defunct?) philosopher's thoughts. Better to realize it than not.
  4. Next, find a copy of Kockelman's Heidegger on Art and Art Works, and read about phenomenology and the hermeneutic circle in impenetrable prose complete with “Heideggerese” and alliteration, thrown in as if only to make it more dizzying. The Kindle edition of the book sells for about $200. This should help you realize you don't know diddly-beans, and, spoiler alert, that is probably the entire point of reading philosophy.
  5. After returning Kockelmans to the library, you can pick up Don Ihde's Heidegger's Technologies: Postphenomenological Perspectives. It's an analysis of Heidegger's essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” in the context of his earlier work, Being and Time, in rather ordinary language. You won't discover what is meant by “postphenomenological” in this book, so you'll have to figure out how to get that information (pro tip: it's in his Peking University lectures.) You'll realize, if you don't know already, reading secondary sources, even those by legit folk such as Kockelmans and Ihde – without having read the primary source – is a good way to miss out on lots of the fun; you get “information” without getting philosophy.
  6. Another thing you may pick up along the way, while reading translations of those 19th and 20th century Germans, is you may just learn how to read. Yes, you probably can't read well yet. Point your face at some Nietzsche, for example, Human, All Too Human. If you can understand it right off, you're pretty good at reading; but it may be you can't understand it even then, and are just fooling yourself. There are reasons for book after book being written on Nietzsche, and paper after paper, long after his death. Read tons of his stuff. Soon you'll get used to his writing style, which predates list-style Web postings by a few years.
  7. You will, if you persevere – and you take the boat-rebuilding course in fixing your view of the world, instead of taking the sapper's approach – realize that information is theory- and value-laden, and that, as a philosophically naive mental structuring of it is disastrous, the world is run, largely, by and for ignorant fools! Congratulations for finding this out. I'll give you a pat on the back here, in case you're too stunned to give yourself one. Or maybe you think politicians are among the more honest of human beings.... The overconfidence of those around, and of yourself, will – if it didn't already – astound you, once you understand something of your own. Arrogant ignorance abounds; the philosopher abides. Or doesn't. Philosophers take action, too. For example, Heidegger was politically conscious, which is supposed to be a Very Good Thing.
  8. If you want to take the sapper's approach, I would recommend some Nietzsche (anything except Zarathustra to start with!), then Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation, a piece of technoscientific-dystopian poetry you may know from its cameo in the 1999 film The Matrix. You may wonder whether Baudrillard was Nietzsche's protege. I did. His stuff is blistering, insane. Then, or first, read that little book by “The Invisible Committee,” The Coming Insurrection, while realizing that it is “shock-the-dullard-cows” writing, completely extravagant in its way, and not something to be used as a literal basis for action. They take a few gripes and want to end the world. Your vision may become blurry, the world uncanny – and that's what you wanted. For the sapper, philosophy books are limit experiences. The approaches of the sapper and the boat-fixer can be hybridized to taste.
  9. The primary benefit of philosophy is that it takes you out of the information blast- furnace, prevents you, while you're reading, from arguing on the Internet (no, you're probably not “having a discussion” – as if even a sizable minority of Netizens know how to do that; and they're whom you'd be talking to), and just might be the gateway practice to reading poetry, the power of which is at least as great as that of philosophy; the two may be, at times, nearly identical.
  10. “If you're not outraged” – you just might be a thoughtful person who realizes that memes and bumper stickers are lossy compressions of bad ideas. If you're not “outraged,” that is, if you aren't into reading “the news” to reaffirm your reasons for being upset, you might just be a philosopher. If you're outraged, it's probably because you're a human being living in a world run by human beings; “the world” is a mess, always has been, and isn't going to get much better anytime soon; philosophy is the way to “think globally, act locally.” It is the ultra-local action dais, where everything that happens for you, happens, and the place where everything can be changed. It is the control panel for the world.

Get off the Web. Read books. Stop arguing on fora and social media. Read philosophy: change your entire world. Now go and look at Heidegger's Country Path Conversations. “Information” helps you blow your competition away in terms of avarice and vanity, is good for cocktail parties and barroom belligerence; philosophy like Country Path Conversations blows your goddam mind.