Think for yourself, criticize everything and stay playful

Having read some Kant and written about his philosophy in previous posts, I have now The Gay Science from Friedrich Nietzsche on my bedside table. In his book Nietzsche opposes the norm, calls people to question current believes and to transcend mentally and intellectually. At the same time Nietzsche seems to ask us not to take anything too seriously so that we could stay playful, keep asking questions and look for answers instead of repeating predetermined dogma and falsified theories. 

What strikes the eye of the modern reader is Nietzsche’s open critique of nationalities and religions, including Judaism and Islam, in a way that might be interpreted as nearing right-wing extremism. Granted, Nietzsche was of the era when nationalism was kept in high regard and the later oppression of Jews was forming. However, I think that Nietzsche can also be read as criticizing topics on a broad spectrum in general and using concrete examples merely as illustrations without providing any real opinions. This interpretation, on my opinion, provides a broader view, allowing us to question not only the things Nietzsche explicitly mentions, but also use his examples as analogies to take our thinking further. This interpretation is supported by the fact that in one paragraph Nietzsche might attack a religion just to defend it, or at least make us think again, in the next one. E.g. see paragraphs 131 and 132 on Christianity. 

Nietzsche’s thoughts in the book are in the form of numbered aphorisms or short arguments to make a single point. Here I have collected some of the snappier and less subtle ones but I highly encourage you to read the book and think about his deeper messages. I am reading the Finnish translation from 1989 so the English translations below are my own. The italics are based on the Finnish translation.

163 After a great victory. – The best thing about a great victory is that it frees the victor from the fear of loss. “Why might I not lose for once?” – he says to himself: “I am now rich enough to bear it.”

 191 Reproach against defense. – The most treacherous way to harm something is to defend it intentionally with false arguments.

195 Ridiculous. – Look! Look! He is running away from people: but they are following him because he is running in front of them, – to that extent they are a herd!

220 Sacrifice. – The animal being sacrificed has a different opinion on its fate than the spectators: but the animal never gets to speak.

222 Poets and liars. – A poet sees a liar as his brother whose share of breast milk he has drunk; therefore has one remained meager without even being able to acquire a good conscience.

230 Lack of silence. – His whole appearance is unconvincing, – this is because never has he left unmentioned a single good deed he has done.

“Will” and “good” in Kant’s moral theory

In my previous blog post I finished with two open questions on Kant’s moral thinking:

  1. Is there some distinction for Kant in talking about “will” as a property of rational beings versus “will” being an action?
  2. Is limiting the property of “good” to actions too limited a concept? E.g. could beauty be “good”? If yes, in what sense?

In this post I will briefly discuss these questions.

Willing as an action

Firstly, if will were to be an action, and not merely the faculty of choosing morally right actions, we must define this action. To me an intuitive definition of willing would be to want something. This leads us hardly further, since now we must define what it means to want something. To want I would define in the following way:

I want A, if and only if A’s existence implies my happiness AND A’s non-existence implies my not being happy.

A more concise and an equivalent formulation is:

I want A, if and only if (I am happy if and only if A).

In the second formulation I have used the brackets to indicate, which statements belong together. The formulation means that I can only happy when the disjunction of all Ai that I want is true. I can, of course, make my happiness independent of any single Ai, but if some Ai is required for my happiness, then I can only be happy, and I will always be happy, when that Ai is true. For example, I could say that

  • I am happy if I get ice cream or if I get candy.
  • I am happy if I get ice cream and candy.

In the first case, getting either ice cream or candy makes me happy, but in the second case both are required for my being happy. I could also make my happiness independent of both ice cream and candy, but in that case I wouldn’t be wanting either of them.

This definition of will as wanting something is un-Kantian since the above definition of wanting something makes wanting, and thus willing, conditional on happiness. Since Kant defines will as the faculty of acting based on laws, the provided definition of will as an action is at odds with Kant’s definition of will as a faculty; if actions based on will are done without exception, the will behind those actions cannot be conditioned on anything.

Can only actions be good?

This second question, the scope of the word good, seems trickier and I do not try to answer it completely, but will provide some insight. The question whether the term good is reserved by Kant only for actions can actually be answered by taking a look at Kant’s own definitions. In his Fundamentsl Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals Kant writes:

“[…] the will is a faculty to choose that which reason independent of inclination recognizes as practically necessary, i.e. as good.”

Here Kant gives a definition of good as something that is necessary in the practical sense. Now we must ask what is meant by practically necessary. The answer lies in Kant’s definition of practical reason, with which he refers to reason used in judging moral questions. As I understand it, good is something that is necessarily required, i.e. something that must be true in the realm of morals. In other words, something that is good is an absolute moral principle or command and does not contradict itself.

In his text, Kant also talks about a perfectly good will. If good is something that is an absolute moral principle or command without contradictions, then an absolutely good will would be an absolutely moral principle or command in itself, and this is actually what Kant also says in his text:

“That will is absolutely good which cannot be evil – in other words, whose maxim, if made a universal law, could never contradict itself.”

Thus the word good can be understood as a definition in the sphere of morality, a definition of things that are necessary in the sense, that they never contradict themselves. A further question can be made by asking what kind of contradictions are meant here. C. M. Korsgaard discusses this question in her paper.

Whether we want to call things outside the realm of morals good, may be a mute question. If we strictly reserve the word good with its special meaning for talking about things that are practically necessary, we can use other words to evaluate art and its aesthetic value, for example. In the case of art, we might even define art as something that is aesthetically pleasing, so that the word art becomes evaluative in itself; bad “art” would not be art at all.

A good philosophy podcast by some guys

For some months I have been listening to podcasts from Partially Examined Life, “a philosophy podcast by some guys, who at one point set on doing philosophy for a living, but then thought better of it”, as Mark Linsenmayer, one of the podcasters puts it.

In the podcasts the now group of four men discusses a pre-defined topic and texts they have read in preparation. During the podcast that lasts between one and two hours the men analyze the ideas and thoughts of the respective philosopher and philosophy and its connections to other philosophical directions. The podcasts assume no existing knowledge on philosophy, so they are a great way to get into touch with some of the well-known philosophers and their thinking, like Bentham with his utilitarianism or Kant and his categorical imperative, not to mention the ideas of Nietzsche.

The discussions of the four podcasters are entertaining and for the most part the audio quality is decent. I would recommend listening to the recordings while you are taking a long walk, or otherwise can concentrate on listening while still not just sitting in a chair or lying on your sofa.

Having listened to the podcasts, I have gained some idea on multiple philosophical concepts and the reasoning  and assumptions that underlie them. I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself soon reading some of the texts recommended as pre-reading for the podcasts.

The day you die could be the happiest of your life

Quite recently two persons, both relatively close to me, died. Both were already elderly and had a long life behind them. Having known them and their worldview, I suspect that both of them would have described their life as good and fulfilling, all the way to the end. Obviously these deaths made me think, once again, how I would want to live my life and how I should live it.

Having thought about life in general and my own in particular on many occasions, I have read and listened to many thinkers and their views on how one should live. In this short post, I do not intend to dive into the depths of morals or build my own thinking on any particular philosophy, but give a few practical thoughts and pieces of advice on living a good life, whatever that might be.

An often-heard piece of advice from elderly people is to live so that you will have no or few regrets when lying on your deathbed. A more developed version of this is to avoid having regrets of not doing or trying something; trying and failing seems to be better than the insecurity of potential success without ever having tried.

Further pieces of advice are to embrace the moment and enjoy what you have. Trying to improve yourself and your life is required to avoid stagnation and the potential regret of not having done things, but one should also meet failure with acceptance and a calm mind. Do not make your happiness conditional on achieving certain goals, but set yourself on a path and try to reach those goals. Not reaching them does not make you any worse off, but not having even tried leads to regret, to a feeling of not having lived. Being active, looking for what interests you and trying things out are ingredients of a good life. Also, helping others to and taking part in their lives is often mentioned as an important part of a good life.

Last Saturday, as I was at my yoga lesson, my eyes caught a headline on some yoga magazine: “Living the best years of my life”. I didn’t read the article, but it was an interview with a singer. What I realized was that the sentence can be interpreted in two ways, one being counter-productive for living a good life, the other one helping us to have one.

The first, obvious, interpretation is that I am living the best time of my life right now. It might get better, but it was never this good. It also might not become any better, or it might even get worse. This kind of mentality easily leads us either longing for the past, the better days that shall be no more, or to anticipate the future that shall be so much better than the present. In both cases, we might completely fail to appreciate and value that what we have right here and right now. And since we in effect live only in the present, we might never feel living a good life.

However, taking the other interpretation helps us value the present, while still retaining the possibility of an even better future and also allowing us to return in our minds to past events when we felt living a good life. If we interpret the sentence “Living the best years of my life” as a process, we are constantly living the best years of our life. In this way we seize the moment, can feel grateful for it and live the best years, while still being able to look back in to the past and forward in to the future and also there see the best years of our life. Living in this way we can be happy, if not every day, at least much more often than if we merely zoomed through our lives without ever stopping, looking around, listening, feeling, wondering, filling all our senses, living the good life right now with our closest ones. We can embrace the moments flowing past us, throw ourselves into them and live a good life all the way until, at the dusk of our last day, we might finally be certain of it.