Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On necessity, happiness and freedom

To: Diana M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: On necessity, happiness and freedom
Date: 12 March 2002 14:06

Dear Diana,

I do apologize for keeping you waiting so long for my reply to your first essay for the Associate program, 'On Necessity, Happiness and Freedom' (13.2.02). If you've followed my Glass House notebook and the Philosophy Pathways newsletter you will know that these last four weeks have been a traumatic time for me. This is in fact the second day of what is going to be a long haul: catching up on a month's backlog of letter writing. Yesterday, I sent out over 5000 words in 6 hours - and then collapsed from exhaustion.

I hope I can to justice to your essay.

Just a comment on your letter. You say, 'I didn't and don't want to work on other people's ideas...'. Not a totally unexpected response from someone who has been deeply involved with reading Schopenhauer, one of the most belligerently original philosophers in the history of philosophy! - But then one remembers that Schopenhauer only got to his philosophy through a deep study of Kant.

It is impossible to avoid writing on the basis of what you have learned and studied. If you really wanted to avoid all contact with other philosopher's ideas then it would be better if you never opened a philosophy book. You don't need me to tell you that would not get very far with that approach!

There are different ways to approach the task of writing a philosophy essay. (See my piece, 'Writing a Philosophy Essay' on the Pathways web site: http://www.philosophypathways.com/programs/pak4.html.) An essay can set out to describe the views of a particular historical philosopher, or a controversy between two or more philosophers. Or it can set out to describe a philosophical problem, and a possible response or responses to it. Even if you take the latter route, however, it is impossible to avoid the fact that you are coming at the problem from *somewhere*. The account of the problem is one that you may have read in the book by A or the article by B. Even if it seems to you that you thought up the problem, all for yourself, it will have been suggested to you by things people are saying or writing, on TV or in the newspapers. It will be 'in the air'.

Whatever kind of essay you set out to write, the fact remains that you are putting forward your own view. Even if you restrict the essay to, 'Schopenhauer's theory of X', it is your interpretation that you are putting forward.

With that long preamble, let's look at your essay:

Well, surprise, surprise, the essay could almost have been written by Schopenhauer himself. It is difficult to point to any specific thing you say that Schopenhauer would have disagreed with.

Schopenhauer accepts, just like Spinoza before him, that the freedom of indetermination is no freedom at all. An action is free if and only if it is determined by reason.

But where does reason - or rather, where do reasons - come from? Let's take an elementary case. I go to the fridge to get an apple to eat. 'Why did you take that apple?' 'Because I was hungry.' Amongst the things we recognize as legitimate reasons are things we have no choice about. They are given, as part of our biological heritage. Hunger as such is a natural instinct or urge; but 'I am hungry' is a reason. We cannot chose whether or not to feel hunger - although we can, of course, choose whether to do anything about it, or even, with sufficient motivation or practice, whether to 'mind' it. As a reason for action, 'I am hungry' has to compete alongside other reasons.

On the next level, however, are the more interesting reasons, the reasons we ourselves have created. These reasons concern all the things human beings do - all the goals they set themselves - other than simply to survive or procreate. We do not, each of us, create these reasons for ourselves from scratch but inherit them from our culture.

However, we also have the freedom to create new 'reasons'. This seems to be the thing that most interests you. We are not bound by what others have done, or by what others have regarded in the past as a good or bad thing to do or to aim at.

However, there are limits. If I want to make an X, or do Y, I should be able to explain to someone else what kind of thing I am doing. Am I making a work of art? is it a scientific experiment? is it an act of worship? what is there about making an X or doing Y that is desirable, that makes it worth doing?

You seem to see a problem here: 'Being happiness attainable only by each individual, defining this as the satisfaction of both natural and created necessity for each person, the concept of man must necessarily be put apart.'

Why can't we say that it is up to each individual to 'set the limits of his own created necessity' - in other words to set one's own unique goals, to make one's own life plan for oneself - while at the same time recognizing that any such *existential* choice is one that the individual can explain to others, using the common language which they share, in the way I have indicated above?

One particularly interesting aspect of your essay is the way it recalls the ideas of Nietzsche. Only certain special individuals, according to Nietzsche, have the power to create values (= 'reasons' for the purpose of this essay) as opposed to living by values that others had created: the individual Nietzsche calls the 'Ubermensch' or superman. But why? why can't we all be ubermenschen?

All the best,

Geoffrey