6. The serious business of play and jazz


“The structure of play absorbs the player into itself, and thus frees him from the burden of taking the initiative, which constitutes the strain of existence.” 1

Recap – In the last chapter, we were paddling across deep water as Gadamer described the inadequacies of a type of experience called Erlebnis. The first shortcoming being that Erlebnis reduces and simplifies experience to just something possessed by someone. Secondly, the Kantian priority of the subjectivisation of aesthetics, based upon Erlebnis, submerges any notion of self-understanding or self-identity under its enormous weight. For these reasons, and others, Gadamer wanted to reject Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics and explore, instead, how a work of art might possess truth.

Before continuing, though, we should remind ourselves that whenever we describe the engagement with an ‘artwork’ or ‘work of art’ we build a template for how we can engage with one another. This is because, as I mentioned in the last chapter, Gadamer’s work on aesthetics always has an implicit ethical lesson.

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 – As far as Gadamer was concerned, if we can “learn to understand ourselves in and through”2 a work of art then aesthetics and epistemology might not have to operate in isolation from each other. The basis of this assertion, however, resides in a different mode of self-understanding. And this new mode of self-understanding relies upon the continuity of someone through time, the continuity of their history, and the continuity of history itself.

To reach this new mode of self-understanding Gadamer introduced a second manifestation of experience to replace ErlebnisErfahrung is described by his translators, Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, as “something you undergo, so that subjectivity is overcome and drawn into an ‘event’ of meaning.”3 This second form of experience as “something you undergo” is explicitly distinct from Erlebnis as “something you have.” The priority of the subject is taken away, and replaced by the priority of the event. When Gadamer, once again, directed this mode of experience back to the experience of art, the impact of his introduction of Erfahrung becomes clear: “a genuine experience (Erfahrung) [is] induced by the work, which does not leave him who has it unchanged.”4

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Gadamer’s introduction of experience as Erfahrung also enabled a reformulation of his epistemic question concerning art:

“Does not the experience of art contain a claim to truth which is certainly different from that of science, but just as certainly is not inferior to it? And is not the task of aesthetics precisely to ground the fact that the experience (Erfahrung) of art is a mode of knowledge of a unique kind, certainly different from that sensory knowledge which provides science with the ultimate data from which it constructs the knowledge of nature, and certainly different from all moral rational knowledge, and indeed from all conceptual knowledge – but still knowledge, i.e., conveying truth?”5

The re-emergence of the question of art having a claim to truth through the vehicle of Erfahrung, as opposed to the rejected Erlebnis, allowed Gadamer the opportunity to reconsider what it was to experience a work of art and how one might gain truth from such an experience. If Erfahrung is experience as “something you undergo,” with the priority of the subject replaced by the priority of the event and the importance of self-understanding, then Gadamer can genuinely begin to radically re-tune our approach to aesthetics.

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Thus far, Gadamer’s work in the arena of aesthetics has yielded a rejection of the Kantian model of subjectivisation with a clear rationale as to why it has been rejected, courtesy of the comparison between experience as Erlebnis and experience as Erfahrung.

The next step for Gadamer, then, had to be a tangible demonstration of what it means to seek out experience as Erfahrung. And, such a demonstration of Erfahrung needs, of course, to bring its buddy of ‘self-understanding’ along. Now, not to give the game away too much, but possibly to help it get off to a good start Gadamer stated, “understanding belongs to the encounter with the work of art itself.”6 And, it is in this statement where we find the switching of priorities: the priority of the encounter replaces the priority of the subject doing the observing. Rather unhelpfully, though, Gadamer referred to the priority of the encounter in a Heideggerian sounding phase: “the mode of being of the work of art itself.”7

Placing to one side the Heideggerian connotations of such an obscure turn of phrase, and somewhat relying on trust, we need to proceed undaunted in order to appreciate what lies beneath the Heideggerian obscurification. Because, within the concept of “the mode of being of the work of art itself,” Gadamer employed perhaps his most innovative contribution to aesthetics, a re-evaluation of the term ‘play.’

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After first dealing with all the uses of this term employed by previous thinkers, such as Kant and Schiller who gave it a subjective application of course, Gadamer set out his own thinking on play.

When one is solely used to walking sedately from room to room and observing all those around conducting themselves in a like manner, it comes as quite a shock when a confident dancer glides, swoops, spins, and shimmies their way through the same building. The priority given to the subject in ‘pre-Gadamerian’ thought is akin to walking in this illustration. When everyone else around is doing the same thing as you, it reinforces your comfort that you are acting correctly. It is only when a dancer comes along that previous ways of being are shown to be incomplete. Once the dancer arrives all methods of locomotion can be ushered in, from running to cycling to skateboarding. Gadamer, in this instance, is obviously the dancer because he realised that one can distance oneself from subjectively orientated phenomenon and discover other modes of being. One can dance, one can skate, one can hop, skip and jump. One can play. Importantly, as Gadamer explained, such ‘play’ comes about only if the subjective manner of experience is pushed aside: “Play fulfils its purpose only if the player loses himself in play.”8 Now, point to note. This is new.

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Swooping and gliding, Gadamer looked at the world differently from how he was taught and saw the possibility for dancing if only one can let go of the priority of the subject. Letting go is difficult, though, especially if you have the many shackles of philosophical history weighing you down. However, if you can do it, it is fantastically exhilarating and refreshing. Indeed, Gadamer must have felt this as he wrote about the player losing himself or herself in play, because in a way he too was playing with philosophy. Gadamer’s personal enjoyment, though, is not the current topic.

The priority upon play, Gadamer understood as the players losing themselves in play. However, he also realised that by the players losing themselves in this sense they also enable play to come forward: “play reaches presentation (Darstellung) through the players.”9 Play needs players. Although, when discussing an example of a type of play such as ‘to-and-fro movement’, Gadamer notes that “it makes no difference who or what performs this movement.”10 The subject encountering play, importantly, has no necessary priority in the mode of being of play for Gadamer. Overcoming this priority is quite a challenge because, as Gadamer remarked, we have become “accustomed to relating phenomena such as playing to the sphere of subjectivity.”11 In order over-come this challenge, Gadamer drew attention to another facet of play that complements the loss of subjective priority, the loss of any kind of target for play:

“It is part of play that the movement is not only without goal or purpose but also without effort. It happens, as it were, by itself… The structure of play absorbs the player into itself, and thus frees him from the burden of taking the initiative, which constitutes the strain of existence.”12

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Play, then, if undertaken without a goal, has priority over the subject and incorporates the latter within itself in such a manner as to relieve the subject from existential concerns whilst they are at play. Self-conscious thoughts about whether one is any good at the game become lost, as do minor worries about what to cook for the evening meal, or even major ones such as where is my life going. The player gives himself or herself over to play and becomes part of an event if the game is entered into with commitment and seriousness and not in the mode of a spoilsport. In this way one presents themselves open to the risk of being ‘outplayed’ and the possibility of embarrassment. However, by the same token, one also allows the possibility of new experiences that were not even on the horizon of expected outcomes: “The player experiences the game as a reality that surpasses him.”13

Bringing it back to aesthetics, Gadamer reflected once more on the subjectivisation of aesthetics after Kant and his desire to overcome the priority of the subject, where the aesthetic consciousness fills art objects with unique and special meaning:

“If art is not the variety of changing experiences (Erlebnisse) whose object is filled subjectively with meaning like an empty mold, we must recognise that ‘presentation’ (Darstellung) is the mode of being of the work of art. This was prepared for by deriving the concept of presentation from the concept of play, for self-presentation is the true nature of play – and hence of the work of art also.”14

The concept Gadamer has of play, therefore, creates a framework to re-work aesthetics where one isn’t trapped into following subjectivisation and epistemological separation.

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Because play effects a surpassing of the subject, epistemological prospects become altered, as Gadamer concluded:

“My thesis, then, is that the being of art cannot be defined as an object of an aesthetic consciousness because, on the contrary, the aesthetic attitude is more than it knows of itself. It is part of the event of being that occurs in presentation, and belongs essentially to play as play.”15

The presentation of play makes the “being of art” more than can be known by aesthetic consciousness. Or, said in a slightly different way, aesthetic consciousness is insufficient when attempting to capture the “being of art.” Perhaps we need to step back from the Heideggerian “being of art” for the moment to really grasp what is at stake here?

When looking at a work of art we normally try to understand it, appreciate it, or interpret it. So, we meet with it as ourselves with all of our experience, or inexperience, knowledge and taste, as Kant would argue, to assess the work. Then, after a period of application and potential revelation as to what the work might mean for us we move on. Our aesthetic consciousness has done its job. The issue for Gadamer is that this explanation of an encounter with an artwork is insufficient and misses the point because everything is so wrapped up in the subject, and the subject’s ability to attend to the work. Such a perspective invariable limits the work, reduces its potential, and sucks the life right out of it and kills it, dead. Rushing up, Gadamer performs emergency resuscitation and breathes new life into the work by realising that for art to operate and function as art it must be allowed the opportunity of perplexing the viewer. It must be allowed to penetrate deeper than the viewer could have at first perceived. It must be allowed to be more to the viewer than just another aesthetic judgement or contemplative study. For such a shift to happen, of course, an attitude of play needs to be brought to bear whereby an easy too-ing and fro-ing takes place between the viewer and the work. This way the work will not be subsumed by the viewer’s ability to exercise taste or their desire to assess the object before them.

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Consequently, as well as altering the epistemological prospects of a work of art, by postulating the concept of play as that which forces ‘presentation’ as the mode of being of the artwork, Gadamer also introduced what he regarded as the ‘true’ mode of being for the spectator. If one is to be a Gadamerian spectator then one must participate and be present within the play that surrounds the work of art’s presentation: “being present does not simply mean being there along with something else that is there at the same time. To be present means to participate.”16 Participation is a huge concept for Gadamer and we shall have to work up to it over the next few chapters. Good to know what’s on the horizon, though, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, let us not forget that, as far as Gadamer was concerned, what we are doing is learning “to understand ourselves in and through”17 a work of art so that aesthetics and epistemology might not have to operate in isolation from each other. However, more importantly, residing in this different mode of self-understanding is something new and something vital. A continuity of someone through time begins to surface and make an appearance. By being in play with a work of art we allow ourselves to undergo experiences that help give definition to ourselves beyond the usual two-dimensional descriptions of unconnected snapshot moments in time. We become fuller, richer and more rounded as we play with the artwork and allow that play to take us new unanticipated directions.

Speaking of unanticipated directions…

Sunday, January 16, 1938, is etched into Jazz history. On this momentous day Benny Goodman brought his swing orchestra and several guest soloists in front of a capacity audience of 3,800 expectant Jazz enthusiasts to the concert venue in New York City: Carnegie Hall.

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Jazz was a relatively new introduction to this ‘Holy of Holies’ of classical music. ‘Swing,’ however, had never made an appearance until Benny Goodman’s band played that Sunday night in January.

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The event is especially remembered for the racial harmony in performers and audience that were present in the hall. Black performers from both Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s orchestra, such as Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Count Basie, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Cootie Williams sat side by side with Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Harry Goodman, Vernon Brown, Jess Stacey and the other white members of Goodman’s own orchestra. Goodman himself also employed black performers who appeared on the Carnegie Hall roster, such as Lionel Hampton. Numbers and names of the audience members are lost to history, save to say that there was no segregation and not one single problem caused by such integration. Racial discrimination was held in abeyance in New York City for those historic two and a half hours.

Gene Krupka, Benny Goodman, Cootie Williams, Vernon Brown, Johnny Hodges
The importance of the concert for us, though, is in the manner that it allows a multitude of ways to grapple with Gadamer’s idea on the experience of play. We’ll look at the audience of the time and also what one can expect listening to the concert over three-quarters of a century later, but first we shall start with the musicians themselves.

Hard-wired into Jazz is a deep respect and insistence upon improvisation and going with the flow of the music so as not to be rigidly confined by compositional scores. Artists are positively encouraged to give free reign to on-the-spot creative outbursts within the framework of the song they are performing. However, the degree and overall direction of the latitude for such open creativity is given and judged by the bandleader, in this case Benny Goodman. Catherine Tackley, who examined the 1938 concert inside out, quotes Goodman from 1939:

“The most important element is still improvisation, the liberty a soloist has to stand up and play a chorus in the way he feels – sometimes good, sometimes bad, but as an expression of himself, rather than somebody else who wrote something for him. If you want to put it this way, it’s something that is genuinely American, because it’s the expression of an individual – a kind of free speech in music.”18

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Casting aside the pro-American rhetoric, one can sense in Goodman’s words the personal connection that an improvising performer can reach with their art-form if they are allowed to play with it. Two perfect instances of such play come out in the iconographic number by Louis Prima called ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ Both Harry James’ impassioned trumpet solo work and Jess Stacey’s cool hand over his piano solo demonstrate the artistic summits which can be reached when play is allowed to occur.

From the outset of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ there is Gene Krupa’s rumbling, fast and loud, jungle beat on his floor tom, with accompanying bass drum, plus accentuated snare and hi-tom strikes, to set the rhythm alongside his hi-hat pulses and cymbal crashes. Then, after a few seconds, in comes the brass. First, the trombones play a steady triplet hook, and then the trumpets arrive after a couple of seconds with a blaring and deliciously dirty counter line. Next, it’s the saxophones, with a swinging melody that works a smoother phrase to Krupa’s pounding tempo. Goodman’s clarinet, after a minute of pace-setting rhythm from Krupa and the brass section, enters the fray with punchy high notes interspersed with space for the drums to get highlighted in brief breathing spaces where the wind players catch their breath before ploughing through the routine again and again.

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Goodman split the show-stopping tune into two parts. The first delivered the theme, as drawn up by Louis Prima, which in its own right stands as an unforgettable swing standard. However, Goodman’s genius is made apparent in the second section. There is a musical return to the main theme that culminates in a surging groundswell in the trumpets and brass. This broods alongside his clarinet to crank up the tempo and work up the scale to produce a musical invocation of monsters threatening to descend from the shadows in ecstatic dance. Suddenly, a tension release appears when everything pares back leaving just Krupa’s hypnotising floor tom work. However, with a quick roll and flash onto the rest of his kit, Krupa creates space for Harry James to work in a trumpet solo with just the drums and piano in accompaniment. In just over a minute, James performs a solo that flourishes with such virtuosity that, arguably, he can claim the right of achieving the pinnacle moment in the whole concert. His musical brilliance and sense of feeling are both at their peak as he allows his supreme talent loose. The phrases are punched out in harmony with Krupa in such a way that one can almost feel the confidence within James swelling. After scene-setting his command over this section, he slides effortlessly into a pseudo Rimsky-Korsokov moment, where shades of Bumblebees flight are aired, just before belting out a declaration of intent through staccato bursts, that climb ever upwards in an unstoppable run to triumphantly smash through to a new, as yet, unreached level of powerhouse swing that brings the rest of the orchestra back into play. The sensation’s cast in that extended minute are guaranteed never to leave the attentive listener. James reigns majestically and performs to such a level that his life would never be the same again. Less than a year later he would leave Goodman’s orchestra and create his own orchestra on the back of the heights reached at Carnegie Hall.

However, there is a darker side to his performance, which touches on Gadamer’s ideas around play. Tackley quotes James from George T. Simon’s tomb The Big Bands and shows the after-effect that the Carnegie Hall solo had on the trumpeter:

“I don’t think I ever told anybody this, but I was going through a real mental thing, and it was all built around ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ I’d been sick; they gave me some experimental pills… Well, they wigged me out… as I was supposed to get up and play my chorus on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ I just couldn’t make it. I fell back on my chair… It happened again another time, too, so that every time the band played ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ I’d get bugged and scared it would start all over again… I tried to explain it to Benny and I’d even ask him to play ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ earlier in the evening, so I could relax for the rest of the night. But of course, that was his big number, and so I couldn’t blame him for wanting to hold off. Finally, I just left the band. I couldn’t trust myself anymore. At least with my own band I could play the tunes I wanted to play.”19

Tackley interprets James’ obvious psychological problem as “the negative effects of a piece that initially represented collective creativity but had become a standardized arrangement.”20 Thinking this through Gadamer’s idea of play; James in the Carnegie Hall concert had got himself to a pitch where he was in ‘play’ with ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. The techniques and craftsmanship that he had diligently learned over the years of studentship with the trumpet had matured and been absorbed sufficiently so that he could now stop thinking about how to play and could focus wholly, instead, on giving over his fingers and breathing to the music so as to unleash the art. The extent to which he was responding, there and then, to the rhythm and themes of the song, taking risks and improvising on the hoof, allowed him to reach the heights of creative genius. The flow of his talent with the trumpet combining with the energy and raw power of the tune seem to vibrate in his performance giving a whole greater than the sum of the parts. However, subsequently, being asked to capture and repeat such a unique rendition every time the orchestra played ‘Sing Sing, Sing’ – sometimes a daily task – filled him with trepidation. One just can’t be brilliant on demand. Each time he played the solo he would always have the pressure of living up to that one spotlight performance, which was actually given only a few weeks after he joined Goodman’s band. The arrogance of ignorance would have helped him play at Carnegie Hall in a way that he could never emulate again, because that performance would forever be cast in stone as a crowning achievement never to be duplicated or bettered.

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Jess Stacey’s piano solo in ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ is also the epitome of Gadamer’s sense of play, it is wrought with risk too, but has an understated wisdom to it in a way that James’s spectacular solo doesn’t. Which is not to diminish James’s solo but to realise that Stacey brings another dimension entirely to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. Tackley draws out the difference in a wider comparison of the four major performers:

“Stacy’s approach to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ is completely different from many of the other solos in the concert, being reflective not only in mood but in content… Krupa and James use the piece as a vehicle for projecting their Jazz personas, but Goodman and Stacy’s improvisations instead draw the audience in and encourage them to listen.”21

Stacey ‘plays’, though, just as much as James, in his piano solo. Starting with a jaunty bounce, he soon starts weaving different melodic lines which ebb and flow from each other and lead into high octave watery drops splashing softly and delicately, all within a few bars. Drawing in the audience, as Tackley describes, by gently rolling notes in a high register, Stacy effortlessly shifts gears once more and riffs in the mid-range but drops in low minor chords which he then uses to form the next improvised bars before ascending up the piano deftly to return to the high octave once more. It’s a beautiful performance that leaves Goosebumps where James left racing heartbeats.

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Rather interestingly, from a Gadamerian perspective, Tackley spends some time covering the birth pangs of swing before Goodman brought it to Carnegie Hall and identifies a critical element to its reception by audience members. The issue at stake being whether music like Goodman’s was for dancing or listening to.

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In 1934, Goodman began broadcasting on a radio programme entitled Let’s Dance, which obviously swayed the balance at the start towards dance. However, when playing at the Chicago Rhythm Club in 1935, Goodman stated “there was tremendous enthusiasm all through the programme – the few people that tried to dance were booed off the floor.”22 Tackley notes that there was also a shift taking place at this time in preferred venues. Jazz, in its swing variation, started to wander from ballrooms to set up shop in theatres. In so doing, this physically communicated that Jazz was to be listened to and not danced to by its audiences. No more was it background music for dancers. The ‘play’ when the audience experienced swing, by the time of the Carnegie Hall concert, was one that happened aurally not bodily. Notes, melodies, rhythm, riffs and phrases were there to be heard by their audiences who, in turn, gave their full attention and appreciation by listening and allowing the music to ‘play’ with them and take them where they knew not.

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Even today, over three-quarters of a century later, one can listen in the comfort of one’s own Ikea Poäng and be irresistibly carried away. The brilliance of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’s’ composition in the hands of Goodman, Krupa, James, Stacey and friends is there to be felt, to be heard, but most of all to be played with by every new pair of ears that comes across it. The ‘once in a lifetime’ performance is caught, but not preserved. It is given life. It is given an infinity that it deserves, as it is eternally performed again and again. The ‘play’ engaged by the main orchestra members is forever as fresh as when it was given at Carnegie Hall. Their skill and dexterity when they played with Louis Prima melody and rhythm all those years ago, as they swung and improvised under Goodman’s watchful eye taking risks and yearning to forget all the technicalities of their performance in the pursuit of merging themselves absolutely with the music, will always be there. As individuals they gave themselves up completely to achieving the very best jazz they could that night and that only happened when they let go of the logic in the printed notes on the pages in front of them and started to explore where their fingers, breath and talent could take them. Harry James might have felt that he could never reach the great heights again of his performance whilst he was alive, but in the eternity provided by the recording his ‘never-to-be-repeated’ play has been given immortality.

The only question that remains, of course, is whether we, as listeners, can give that same dedication and really listen and play with their unique creation so as to do justice to their combined achievement. Maybe it’s time, if you haven’t done so already, to switch on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, close your eyes and allow your ears, mind and body to become filled with the music. Just make sure it’s the Carnegie Hall version, though!

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  1. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 105.
  2. Ibid., 97.
  3. Weinsheimer, J. and Marshall, D. G. ‘Translators’ Preface’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 14.
  4. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 100.
  5. Ibid., 97-98.
  6. Ibid., 100.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 102.
  9. Ibid., 103.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 104.
  12. Ibid., 104-105.
  13. Ibid., 109.
  14. Ibid., 115-116.
  15. Ibid., 116.
  16. Ibid., 124.
  17. Ibid., 97.
  18. Tackley, C. Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert, Oxford University Press, 2012, 150.
  19. Ibid., 153.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 100.
  22. Ibid., 10.


5. The experience of art and Magritte


“The work of art has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it.”1
Hans-Georg Gadamer

OK, so we’re going to need some definitions for this one because, like it or not, we need to refer to Immanuel Kant and this section might be tougher than your driving test or accessing your online account with a utility provider when you have forgotten your password. But, hey, let’s not be pessimistic, in the next section it’ll all be explained with some art.

Aesthetics – is concerned with questions of taste and beauty
A priori – is reasoning that occurs before experience
Epistemology – is the theory of knowledge
Ontology – is the study of being, existence, stuff, or what there is
Subjectivisation –is Kant’s way of saying something relates to a subject and not to truth or facts (objective things)
Universal – is true for anyone

So, when we last saw Gadamer, we left him leaping out of a lake of epistemology into a stream of aesthetics. All because he decided to ask two questions:

“Is it right to reserve the concept of truth for conceptual knowledge?”2

“Must we not also acknowledge that the work of art possesses truth?”3

The tantalising waters of aesthetics have long been found easier to navigate away from epistemological concerns. However, being that wonderful oxymoron that he was, a careful revolutionary, Gadamer decided to abandon such conventions and sail them both. Good for him, I say.

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Starting by addressing his own questions, a standard philosophical technique, Gadamer posited the following statements and by doing so encapsulated his revolutionary fusion of aesthetics and epistemology:

“The work of art has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it. The ‘subject’ of the experience of art, that which remains and endures, is not the subjectivity of the person who experiences it but the work itself.”4

Excusing the fact that the translation has managed to provide us with the word ‘experience’ four times in two sentences, there are three neat mini-revolutions contained within this terse prose:

  • First, there is the explicit challenge to accepted models of understanding in both aesthetics and epistemology. In both disciplines, the standard criteria for the experiential subject is to be static and stable, and not as Gadamer proposes dynamic and changeable.
  • Second, the statement regarding the work of art’s ‘true being,’ the attainment of which is predicated upon its ability to alter the spectator, acts to license the judgement of the work in a radical manner. The judgement being determined by whether or not there is a perceivable effect upon the viewer.
  • Finally, the third mini-revolution, in contrast to the malleable spectator, sees the work itself remaining constant. Which opposes those who like to see art changing according to the circumstances or time period in which it is viewed, listened to, or read.

Isolated into their separate constitutive parts all can be investigated within their own debates. From the dynamic spectator, to judging an artwork by its ability to produce a change in the spectator, or the work remaining constant, each will undoubtedly provide a lucrative boon to any researcher so inclined to separate, split down and analyse them. For Gadamer, though, they all strode together to act as a central thesis. A thesis with no sense of shame as it threw the contents of its glass into the face of the most important dignitary at the party: Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics.

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Gadamer, being the diligent philosopher that he was, didn’t randomly throw his wine in the general direction of Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics; he first undertook reconnaissance in order to assess the true nature of his target:

“In his critique of aesthetic judgement what Kant sought to and did legitimate was the subjective universality of aesthetic taste in which there is no longer any knowledge of the object.”5

The effective result of such legitimisation removed any possibility for knowledge, and consequently truth, from aesthetic objects and dictated that they be bound together with the empire of the subjective. The whim and fancy of the individual subject was emperor and beauty, in its standard resident position, would be forever in the eye of the beholder.

Hence, Gadamer conceived Kant’s third critique as that which separated aesthetics from epistemology. Taste, beauty and the sublime were divorced from truth as far as Kant was concerned. This, of course, would be of minor concern if Kant were just an everyday down-at-heel philosopher trying to make an honest buck. However, Kant was no such mortal, because as Gadamer knew all too well, “The radical subjectivisation involved in Kant’s new way of grounding aesthetics was truly epoch-making.”6 Epoch-making because every succeeding generation studying aesthetics was left with the legacy of Kant’s subjectivisation, and they either had to adopt it or at the very least address it. As Jean Grondin, a close chum of Gadamer’s wrote, the subjectivisation of aesthetics, for Gadamer, was “the great impasse of aesthetics, if not the whole of modernism.”7 Such an impasse, however, made Gadamer doubt its authority and decide to confront the yawning problem of an epistemological absence.

By asking his two initial questions, Gadamer stood up to his full height, rolled up his sleeves, and held Kant squarely in his sights as he set about dismantling the subjectivisation of aesthetics.

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Armed with a monkey wrench and set of spanners, Gadamer took to his task and began investigating Kant’s work on aesthetics by examining what he called Kant’s Doctrine of Taste and Genius:

“In taste nothing is known of the objects judged to be beautiful, but it is stated only that there is a feeling of pleasure connected with them a priori in the subjective consciousness.”8

Aesthetically then, nothing can be said to be a ‘truth’ about a beautiful object; there are no objective aesthetic ‘facts’ to be agreed upon as to why the object is beautiful. All that can be said is that the object appeals to an individual’s sense of taste. This feeling, as Gadamer acknowledged, however, is not wholly ring-fenced to the subjective individual per se, because it can be communicated universally and as such gain validity. By looking at a piece of Edwardian furniture I might get a feeling of pleasure in my ‘taste’ zone which you would also make sense of and understand because my love of Edwardian furniture is ‘universalisable’ to everyone.

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Consequently, Gadamer believed that Kant situated taste between the merely sensory and universal rational rules: “it imports no knowledge of the object, but neither is it simply a question of a subjective reaction.”9 Ultimately, however, because the universal element to taste is only in its communicability and not in the form of epistemic certainty, taste falls short of the requirements for objectivity and truth, and is relegated to the default status of the subjective. For Gadamer with his screwdriver in hand, having just stripped down this first component of Kant’s authority, it certainly appeared “impossible to do justice to art if aesthetics is founded on the ‘pure judgement of taste.’”10

Working ever onwards, Gadamer took out his oxy-acetylene torch and applied it to Kant’s doctrine of genius, and speedily discovered problems due to the interconnections that Kant drew between the two concepts of taste and genius. Without going into detail, Gadamer was left in no doubt that Kant’s mechanically designed aesthetics was constituted inadequately and by default found itself rooted in subjectivisation; a complete category error as far as Gadamer was concerned.

Fundamentally, then, it appeared that the justices Kant and Gadamer sought to bestow upon aesthetics were at odds. According to Michael Podro, one of Kant’s epoch respondees, “Kant’s primary purpose” was to indicate an “alternative mode of perceptual fulfilment.”11 The focus for Kant was not to find truths within aesthetics, as it was for Gadamer, but to understand a different mode of perception. This was because Kant followed up his previous two critiques on Pure Reason and Practical Reason with a third, on Judgement, that held at its core the same notions regarding a priori conditions – our mental hardwiring. The first critique was concerned with uncovering a priori conditions for “making objective, universally valid empirical judgements, both ordinary and scientific.”12 The second critique then “discovered a priori conditions for making objective, universally valid moral judgements.”13 The third critique, Gadamer’s current chosen critique of choice, then followed by finding a priori conditions for creating judgements based on pleasure, which are obviously subjective.

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In a virtually blasphemous nutshell then, Kant’s project was locked into an enquiry that prioritised the workings of the mind in terms of sensibilities, intuitions, imagination and the understanding. The Gadamerian question of a work of art possessing truth simply was of no interest to Kant. A situation that left Gadamer very frustrated, as a chap called Kai Hammermeister neatly expresses when thinking about ontology (what there is):

“Kantian aesthetics leaves us strangely unsatisfied when viewed from a different perspective, namely, when questioned about the ontological status of the work of art… Kant does not answer the ontological question at all. The aesthetic judgement does not relate to the object, but is merely the expression of the pleasurable subjective state of the free play of imagination and understanding.”14 (The ‘free play’ stuff being the whim or fancy of the individual again).

The separation is absolute, aesthetic judgements have no ontological status for Kant. As Hammermeister notes, “matters of art and matters of knowledge must not be confused.”15 An erroneous position, of course, for Gadamer who was deeply convinced that art can possess truth and can also be discussed in terms of knowledge.

Going head-to-head against Kant and his three critiques, though, was never going to be an easy task. So, even having established that Kant’s legacy was problematic and one-sided. Due to the ontological question being omitted and the priority given to the subjectivisation of aesthetics. Gadamer still had to find a way of demonstrating the profound wrong-headedness of such a legacy and, of course, clearly identifying his recommended alternative.

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Returning to his more natural habitat, tangential modes of thought, Gadamer pursued the task by focusing his attention on the form of experience of those in an aesthetic encounter. Gadamer sought a way forward by applying his mind to the actual term ‘experience,’ which he discovered was once almost solely determined by one particular manifestation called Erlebnis:

“what is experienced is always what one has experienced oneself.”16

The translators of Truth and Method usefully pitch in at this point to aid Gadamer by describing the concept of Erlebnis as “something you have,” and stating that it is always “connected with a subject.”17

Armed with the knowledge that Gadamer was almost certain to dislike this mode of experience it should come as no small surprise that he pitilessly set out how he thought an aesthetic experience of a work of art would operate under Erlebnis:

“What it ignores are the extra-aesthetic elements that cling to it, such as purpose, function, the significance of its content. These elements may be significant enough inasmuch as they situate the work in its world and thus determine the whole meaningfulness that it originally possessed.”18

For Gadamer, these ignored and distinctly ontological elements could start to give the work meaning and possibly truth. But as art, in the traditional (or Kantian) sense, “the work [of art] must be distinguished from all that.”19

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An aesthetic experience based on Erlebnis, therefore, differentiates the ‘purely’ aesthetic from that which surrounds the artwork; a separation that Gadamer could not endorse. As a process, he designated it as the adoption of an ‘aesthetic consciousness.’ Such a stance isolates the experience of the artwork, as Erlebnis, from what it regards as incidental circumstance with no influence upon the aesthetic experience. As far as Gadamer was concerned, the consequent outcome of such “aesthetic differentiation” was two-fold. On one hand, “the work loses it place in the world to which it belongs insofar as it belongs instead to aesthetic consciousnesses,”20 And, on the other, the artist loses their place in the world because they are peripheral to the aesthetic experience based on Erlebnis. Hence, aesthetic consciousness, as a direct result of the subjectivisation of aesthetics, subsumes all works of art and artists: “Aesthetic consciousness has unlimited sovereignty over everything.”21

As well as the fault of establishing a false hierarchy, Gadamer also took issue with the resulting destructiveness of the Erlebnis-driven aesthetic consciousness. Following a very simple progression, if the aesthetics of a work are only significant in terms of the spectator’s experience, in the manner of aesthetic consciousness, then there is no aesthetic unity to the work because the aesthetic content resides solely in the variety of spectators who view it. However, not only is the aesthetic unity of the object destroyed, so too is the identity of the spectator employing aesthetic consciousness. Citing Kierkegaard’s work on the aesthetic stage of existence, Gadamer reminds us that a life led in the “pure immediacy” of aesthetic pleasure is “untenable.”22 By continually ignoring the non-aesthetic elements to a work of art, as a method of experiencing and pursuing a policy of aesthetic consciousness, one is doomed to a fragmentary life without continuity or coherence. One floats meaninglessly from one aesthetic experience to another.

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Ultimately, because of the destructive nature of the aesthetic consciousness, Gadamer regarded its position as unviable, to the point where he realised an imperative:

“Since the aesthetic stage of existence proves itself untenable, we recognise that even the phenomenon of art imposes an ineluctable task on existence, namely to achieve that continuity of self-understanding which alone can support human existence.”23

For Gadamer, then, the legacy of Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics was built upon quicksand, with its core principle of aesthetic consciousness comprehensively destroying all the components within the experience of art: the aesthetic unity of the object, the artist’s place in the world, and even the identity of the spectator. By working through the problems of aesthetic consciousness, in particular the disintegration of the spectator’s identity, Gadamer realised the necessity for an experience of art that allowed a development of one’s identity, not its destruction. This realisation produced the imperative that one should achieve “continuity of self-understanding.”24 One’s experience of art, then, should perpetuate this self-understanding and keep one’s identity alive:

“Self-understanding always occurs through understanding something other than the self, and includes the integrity of the other. Since we meet the individual artwork in the world and encounter a world in the individual artwork, the work of art is not some alien universe into which we are magically transported for a time. Rather, we learn to understand ourselves in and through it.”25

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Gadamer is taking us into deep waters here, which we shall have to continue exploring another time, but only after we have looked at some paintings that just might make everything a little clearer.

One hundred and fifty years before Kant wrote his Critique of Judgement, Diego Velázquez painted his portrait of ‘Pope Innocent X’. Ever since, art connoisseurs have revered the work. For example, Hippolyte Taine described it as “the masterpiece amongst all portraits.”26 If Kant had wanted to ingratiate himself with the Pamphili family, Innocent X’s descendants, and viewed the portrait, perhaps he might have had much to say. Switching between thoughts on how beautiful the work was and how his subjective taste was entranced, I’m sure he would have rhapsodised and seen Velázquez’s work as consummate proof of his ideas on the subjectivisation of aesthetics. Undoubtedly, Kant would have regarded Velázquez as a genius, if pushed to make a comment. He would have also certainly added, “Genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinate rule can be given.”27 Thus reminding us of his separation of rules from aesthetics.

Velasquez Pope Inocencent X
Kant becomes gloriously unstuck, though, when one imagines him looking at a different painting altogether. Three hundred years after Velázquez, Francis Bacon painted several variations on Velázquez’s original work and managed to create a total reformation and a new icon within the history of art. ‘The Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,’ affectionately known as the ‘Screaming Pope’, is a work that Kant would have surely dismissed as devoid of any aesthetic quality whatsoever. However, the tide has turned on Kant because, as we know, there are many respected art critics and aestheticians who venerate Bacon’s work and consider it a triumph of genius. Robert Hughes said, “once you have seen two or three of Bacon’s screaming popes, you can’t get them out of your mind.”28 And this is it. This is Gadamer’s point. Some art “has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it.”29

Bacon After Velazquez 1953
Perhaps, it’s as well now to make clear and bring completely in focus that whenever we describe the engagement with an ‘artwork’ or ‘work of art’ we are building a template for how we could engage with one another. Make no mistake, all Gadamer’s work on aesthetics has an implicit ethical lesson. Sometimes when trying to understand one thing we need to look at another and critically examine how we are actually undertaking the looking.

Dare I say that, possibly, Bacon’s portrait of a screaming Innocent X is unforgettable in a way that Velázquez’s might be? The power of each to haunt us is palpably present, however, Bacon’s shocks, disturbs and engages us intellectually as we are caught staring at it trying to comprehend what on earth is happening. It seduces us and, at the same time, imprints itself on our minds causing a shift in our way of understanding what art can be. When one sees the ‘Screaming Pope’ for the first time one comes away changed. The experience of it alters our perception of what painting is. Somehow the work invades our mind, sets up shop, and makes us slightly different from who we were before. And this power, Gadamer understood, is the “true being” of art: the power to change “the person who experiences it.”

Bacon’s visceral and shocking image produces an emotional outcry from some as they see the silent scream of a forever-transfixed pope. However, one can also experience the mental outcry that yearns to understand and make sense of what it is seeing. Explanations zip rapidly across our minds as we filter information surrounding the painting, such as when it was produced, in case a clue might be gleaned. Or, if we know that Bacon was a lifelong atheist and beaten by his father to try and rid him of his homosexuality, we start conjecturing and pontificating. Desperate attempts to quantify the work come thick and fast. It’s a visual representation of the death of God, a reflection upon the Nuremberg trials where Nazis were questioned inside a glass box, or the ultimate figure of authority suffering the retribution of tortured son. Bacon himself was keen to always avoid and evade any such explanations in order to allow the visual to represent itself rather than being overlaid or smothered by words. Consequently, because of his evasion and the work’s internal resistance to categorisation it blocks neat definitions and ensures that the gaze of the spectator is held and never really released as it continues to linger in the mind as an ever-present visual question that cannot be answered.

700 Aldolf Eichmann - Nazi War Criminal on trial in Nuremberg after capture
Whilst Bacon’s work scorches and sears our mind, another artist working at the same time was doing something similar. Although both would have strenuously denied any cohesion between their activities beyond that they were painters.

Rene Magritte, working in Belgium, but with strong intellectual ties to Surrealism, had been pursuing an artistic project that sought to disrupt traditional notions of how art may be perceived and, indeed, what it may provide. In stark contrast to Bacon, Magritte’s temperature was cooler and somehow more distant. Arguably, too, Magritte’s painterly ability was in a minor key compared to Bacon’s absolute, but always disrupted, major one. Magritte’s style was more along the lines of the illustrative as opposed to the grand master. His work was always about the idea rather than the display of artistic virtuosity. However, let’s us get back to the theme.

In 1868, Édouard Manet painted one of his iconographic scenes of the bourgeoisie at rest, ‘The Balcony’, containing friends and family as the main figures in an homage to Francisco Goya’s ‘The Majas at the Balcony’. The work’s reception at the 1869 Paris salon was, typically for Manet, far from appreciative, with his work being described as “discordant.”30 Maybe, because he didn’t insert female nudes into ‘The Balcony’ as he did with his 1863 and 1865 salon entries ‘The Luncheon on the Grass’ and ‘Olympia’, the criticism was more restrained than outraged. Possibly of more interest is that, wittingly or not, Manet establishes an unusual aura in the figures of ‘The Balcony’, as they each seem to be wholly isolated and independent from each other. I say, “possibly,” because there is an argument that Magritte in his ‘homage’ to ‘The Balcony’ manages to unify them.

A confident and self-assured Magritte painted ‘Perspective II. Manet’s Balcony’ in 1950. The work is an exact reproduction of ‘The Balcony’, except that each of the figures is replaced, or encased, by a coffin shaped to match their posture as depicted by Manet. Unified by death, the figures have been resolved under Magritte’s hand – is how a possible art historical analysis could begin. However, what interests me is the evidence of the same power to shock and disturb as we saw with Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’.

Perpective II- Manet-s-balcony-1950(1)[1]
Viewing Magritte’s work alters one’s understanding of what a work of art can be and how we are to engage with it. Again, as with the ‘Screaming Pope’, Kant would have dismissed ‘Perspective II. Manet’s Balcony’ as some kind of nonsense, because his understanding of aesthetics is simply short-circuited by Magritte. Magritte forestalls Kantian notions of beauty and taste, because he was not interested in merely replicating nature on canvas, his priorities lay outside of such a restrictive view of aesthetics. However, as always, we must keep to our topic and in this instance look to Gadamer.

Gadamer’s ideas, as we know, rotate upon a new axis of engagement: one that demands we consider the spectator as a malleable figure. The work of art has its “true being” or, switching things around, the work can truly be said to be art, if it changes the person who experiences it. When regarding Magritte’s work do we not come away altered? Are our sensibilities and understanding of aesthetics not dashed to the floor? Or, at least mildly jostled, when we stack ‘Perspective II. Manet’s Balcony’ against the long line of ‘traditional’ art with its litany of landscapes, portraits and figurative permutations upon religious tales of yore? The sight of coffins so obviously taking the place of figures, even if we were ignorant of Manet’s original, forces a pictorial confrontation that seems to wilfully disobey the very text of how we should refer to death. It instantly unsettles and provokes us so that the question to ask becomes, ‘do we ever come away from something that has unsettled us the same as we were before?’ I suspect not, but then I would, wouldn’t I? After all, I’m a Gadamerian rather than a Kantian.

Let’s look at some more Magritte’s and see if we can further grasp what Gadamer is trying to tell us.



Some works like ‘Clairvoyance’ or ‘Day and Night’ are cunning creations that appear to be almost visual gags. They appear as visual incarnations of ‘what if’ ideas. However, other works impact in a more profound way.

‘The Great War,’ for example, works to continually irritate us because the hydrangea is precisely in the way of where we want to look – the Edwardian lady’s face. We don’t cope too well when faces are covered up, obscured or removed entirely. Perhaps instinctively we are upset and disturbed by this? The face is after all where we direct our gaze when regarding each other and it is always our first port of call when examining portraits, the surroundings are forever secondary.

In ‘Not to be Reproduced’, Magritte plays further with this unsettling theme by giving the work the sub-title – Portrait of Edward James – a device he repeats in ‘The Pleasure Principle.’

Both works deepen our sense of being unsettled because the solitary protagonist is actually named and the work is expressly presented as a ‘portrait’. Our expectations, therefore, become visually and textually distressed.

Magritte continues throughout his work to explore the idea of stunning our expectations with yet more ways of interrupting our usual ease of regarding portraits. ‘The Rape’ and ‘The Lovers’ both continue to disturb our gaze by removing or altering our understanding of what we expect to see.

500 The Rape


As with all of Magritte’s work, each painting has its own semantic and interpretive possibilities. However, when seen together from ‘The Great War’ onwards, there is a vein of deliberateness that seeks to strike at the very foundation of what we want to see when admiring a portrait. The strike in each case leaves an indelible impression on our minds that, once seen, cannot be erased. Just like Robert Hughes’ description of Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’ you can’t get Magritte’s works out of your head. Working with an un-masterful painterly technique or not, Magritte’s art hits home and does its Gadamerian work: the spectator walks away changed by the experience.

Incidentally, as one opens oneself up more to the work of Magritte, one starts to see a language taking shape through the re-working of different yet similar ideas. However, it is not an objective language, because we each establish with Magritte’s works a unique understanding that functions as a ‘common language’ solely between the works and us. What I see and understand is going to be different to what you see and understand. There might be some shared cross-over points. However, if we are to truly engage with the works and allow them to ‘speak’ to us, rather than be ‘translated’ by a third party, we need to direct ourselves to the works themselves. When conversing with Susan we don’t really want Nigel to interlope and speak on Susan’s behalf. Likewise, when ‘conversing’ with Magritte go to the primary source, his works, not to your friend, an art historian or Daily Mail columnist.

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Finally, though, we need to understand that Magritte can be a cypher for how to relate to an artwork or an artist’s oeuvre. His work demonstrates the power that any art can have on us, in that we can be changed by it, if we let it. The question is can we let ourselves be affected by a work of art? Are we able to stand in front of something that we know could push us, change us, re-shape our boundaries, redefine our customs, and tinker with our deepest thoughts and emotions? Because what I hope to have shown with Magritte and Bacon can be found, and should be found, in the whole gamut of art. After all, one person’s Magritte is another person’s Miró, Picasso, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Goya, or even Velázquez or Manet.


  1. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 102.
  2. Ibid., 41-42.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 102.
  5. Ibid., 41.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Grondin, J. The Philosophy of Gadamer. Translated by Kathryn Plant, Acumen, 2003, 39.
  8. Ibid., 43.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 45.
  11. Podro, M. ‘Kant and the Aesthetic Imagination’ included in Art and Thought, edited by Dana Arnold and Margaret Iverson, Blackwell, 2003, 63.
  12. Crawford, D. W. ‘Kant’ included in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic M. Lopes, London, 2002, 52.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Hammermeister, K. The German Aesthetic Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 39.
  15. Ibid., 40.
  16. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 61.
  17. Weinsheimer, J. and Marshall, D. G. ‘Translators’ Preface’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 13-14.
  18. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 85.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 87.
  21. Ibid., 89.
  22. Ibid., 95.
  23. Ibid., 96.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 97.
  26. Bosky, B. L. “Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine”, Cyclopedia of World Authors, Vol. 5, Salem Press, fourth rev., 2003, 1971.
  27. Kant, I. Critique of Judgement, Section 46, translated by Werner S. Pluhar, Hackett Publishing Company Inc., Indianapolis, Indiana, 1987, 175.
  28. Hughes, R. Francis Bacon: Horrible, The Guardian, 30th August 2008, [viewed 20 January 2018]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/aug/30/bacon.art
  29. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 102.
  30. See Castagnary, J.-A. “Balcon (Le)”in Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe siecle,Vol. 16, 1877, 281. (Actual phrase is more like, “This contradictory attitude disconcerts me”).


4. Conversation, memory and desire


“To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter…”1
Hans-Georg Gadamer

Now, let’s imagine two chaps having a discussion. Umberto and Giovanni are sitting in Firenze’s finest Coranas Café, about a third of the way along Via dei Calzaiuoli and halfway between the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Ponte Vecchio on the river Arno. It’s a late afternoon in April and the two men are pretty much the only customers in the café. Although, there is an old lad wearing a black overcoat and suit at the next table, gently nursing a glass of water after finishing his espresso. Let’s call him Hans-Georg and let’s also imagine he is eavesdropping on Umberto and Giovanni, not for any malicious reason but purely to observe their discussion. There is an easy flow of dialogue between the two, interspersed with bouts of florid gesturing on Umberto’s part. Giovanni is calmer. He’s the cooler customer.

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For Hans-Georg, their conversation represents an idealised and pure moment. To him, neither Umberto nor Giovanni are trying to objectify the other, they both seem to give credit for the other’s ideas. They also don’t allow themselves to get trapped into the other’s way of presenting them. For example, when Umberto says “Listen Giovanni, you can’t say that about Wittgenstein,” Giovanni immediately interjects.

“No, wait Umberto, you misunderstand me. I don’t mean that Wittgenstein was wrong. I merely mean that the Tractatus was the experiment, per eccellenza, that pushed the envelope of logical positivism until the inevitable happened and it burst.”

“So, Wittgenstein was wrong, according to you,” Umberto excitedly jumps in.

Leaving a little space after Umberto’s pronouncement, Giovanni replies:

“No, Umberto. Let me finish. Wittgenstein was right because he could see that it would burst. Remember the ladder. Right at the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein said ‘throw away the ladder after you have climbed up theses propositions,’ or something like that.”

With some difficulty, Umberto reflects in silence, before saying, “OK, so what you are saying is that the Tractatus was really Wittgenstein’s philosophical dead-end.” Pausing briefly, with Giovanni allowing him space to formulate his thoughts, Umberto continues, “I guess that was why he seemed to shift so much later on when he wrote about ethics not adding to our knowledge, although he thought it captured ‘a tendency in the human mind,’ which he admitted to respecting deeply.”

Whilst Giovanni silently nods his head, Umberto sips his espresso, and then with a look of solemnness says “I guess you are right about the Tractatus, it was a doomed exercise, there was no room for ethics in its strict propositional logic.”

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“Yeah, you know, I never quite thought of it like that,” said Giovanni, “there is no room for ethics in the Tractatus. Gosh, it sounds so obvious now that you say it.”

At this point, Hans-Georg grabs his black fedora and heads for the door, after leaving payment in-between the cup and saucer for his espresso. Heading south on the Via dei Calzaiuoli, he strides towards the Arno. As he goes, he reflects that Umberto and Giovanni really seemed to listen and help each other go further in their understanding than they could have gone on their own. Now, if Hans-Georg was the very same Hans-Georg Gadamer he would have been delighted to witness the fluid movement of understanding between the two chaps. Who knows? Perhaps, in my little idealised Gadamerian vignette, he was?

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If we turn back to Gadamer proper, we find him examining the term conversation and reasoning that there are conditions of participation in a dialogue:

“To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented. It requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other’s opinion.”2

Expanding, Gadamer articulated three conditions regarding conversation:

  • The first was that one must allow the subject matter of the conversation to dictate the flow of the conversation, and that one should not enter into a conversation with a pre-determined goal if one wants to have a genuine experience.
  • The second was that one must remain open to what the other actually gives within the conversation, and hence respond to those opinions and not just what arises in one’s own thoughts.
  • And, the final condition was that “every conversation presupposes a common language, or better, creates a common language.”3

With these three conditions in place, Gadamer believed a ‘successful conversation’ could take place where both participants “come under the influence of the truth of the object and are thus bound to one another in a new community.”4 There is much force here in Gadamer’s reference to community, because he tried to articulate that we should be open rather than stating that we should just be – the Heideggerian position.

Such ‘prescriptive’ thinking, though, often gets one into trouble within philosophic circles because philosophers like to pounce upon each other and slash at ideas with logical razors until any life contained within them has all but bled away.

This being true, I believe that Gadamer was both immensely audacious and ingenious to get his ideas accepted into the annals of philosophy. This is because he managed to breathe life once more into Heidegger’s enigmatic, but effectively beached leviathan, letting being be, when Heidegger himself could not. By forging ahead of Heideggerian notions, and daring to be explicit in how one should relate to an other, rather than remaining in the inscrutable realm of letting being be, Gadamer nailed his colours to the mast and declared that philosophy must be useful and not just high level pontificating. Now, throw your daggers, you Heideggerians.

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By establishing his three participatory conditions for a conversation, prioritising the subject matter over oneself, allowing the other to voice their opinion and the creation of a ‘common language’, Gadamer demonstrated his commitment to understanding and not to dated philosophical protocol. Being stuck on a beach with Heidegger and his whale was not useful for Gadamer. Exchanging pleasantries, sunning oneself, and endlessly chewing on a diet of phenomenology were not to be the pinnacles of Gadamer’s career. Instead, he wiped the sun cream off, pushed the whale back into its natural habitat, and bid Heidegger “Good day,” as he strode off the beach looking for an opportunity to meet someone with whom to engage openly and productively. However, before any such meeting could take place Gadamer wanted to be clearer about his ideas and so he continued to muse:

“Conversation is a process of coming to an understanding. Thus, it belongs to every true conversation that each person opens himself to the other, truly accepts his point of view as valid and transposes himself into the other to such an extent that he understands not the particular individual but what he says. What is to be grasped is the substantive rightness of his opinion, so that we can be at one with each other on the subject… Where a person is concerned with the other as individuality – e.g., in a therapeutic conversation or the interrogation of a man accused of a crime – this is really not a situation in which two people are trying to come to an understanding.”5

Understanding through conversation, therefore for Gadamer, requires that each person regard the other’s opinion and not just the other as an object. A stunningly obvious truth, but one that absolutely needs stating. A friendly Gadamerian, David E. Linge, repackages this idea so that we might dwell upon it further, in case we all too rashly dismiss it due to its simplicity and bumble blithely ever onwards:

“The dialogical character of interpretation is subverted when the interpreter concentrates on the other person as such rather than on the subject matter – when he looks at the other person, as it were, rather than with him at what the other attempts to communicate.”6

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The necessary realisation being that we need to stop looking at, and start looking with, if we want any actual understanding to emerge, because understanding comes through participation not observation as far as Gadamer is concerned. A bold move that will rub anyone’s inner Aristotelian up the wrong way. Something, which I, of course, thoroughly recommend, endorse and condone. Consequently, when one looks with someone else one can achieve a sense of community and, as Gadamer described, feel that an experience has occurred.

Such seemingly ‘soft’ results though, via sensing and feeling, craft a richer picture than their individual merely ‘pleasant’ and ‘vague’ sensations might suggest, because they help to create something philosophically much overlooked. They interlace together with other ‘soft’ elements, such as an open disposition and the desire to learn, to build an environment where self-consciousness can evolve and adapt. Perhaps, even bringing us closer to the much sought-after wisdom of which we yearn? Should our desire, therefore, be to weave a rich tapestry from these ‘soft’ threads?

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Such a proposition to cultivate ‘woolly-ness’ again assists in re-floating Heidegger’s whale, with its inscrutable yet essentially empty, lost, and overly neutral suggestion to ‘let being be’. This is because Gadamer started building from Heidegger’s end point, realising that the beach location was perfect, just not the article placed upon it. So, with the calm dignity of one who does not necessarily know the final design of what he has started to construct, Gadamer returned to Heidegger’s sunny haven. What he did know, however, was how and why he needed to build.

Gadamer’s project was not a building block approach whereby a rigid blueprint is planned, with construction around uniform and known materials. The step-by-step approach of starting with firm foundations and then setting down course after course of block-work in order that anyone might dwell within the result was not Gadamer’s intention. Instead, Gadamer desired to avoid all programmatic engineering by scientific communities, with their strict adherence to principles of logic and order, which many philosophers have attempted to mimic. He realised that something essential gets lost when one’s thinking is fashioned along such lines. For him, the prescription that truth can only be generated and found acceptable through such programmed methods was something to rebel against. The discovery of truths should not only lead to the development of conceptual knowledge, but to other types of knowledge and even, possibly, to wisdom.

Such thinking, though, is the very stuff of insurrection.

Undaunted, Gadamer leaps courageously, as the salmon, up the waterfall of thought, against the overwhelming pressure of surging philosophical currents aided ever downwards by gravity and the sheer volume of names, reputations and tomes of revered learning.

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Continuing on the counter current achieved by his thoughts on conversations, horizons and prejudices, which have broadened our understanding of ourselves in a world that is occupied by others, Gadamer now takes us to a quite unexpected destination. Maybe he realised that he ought not to present yet more fascinating and insightful perspectives but instead dive wholeheartedly into a different terrain altogether? Maybe he had squarely fixed his sights on this new target all along and was always aiming in that direction? Whatever the rationale, motivation, or luck that brought Gadamer to this new destination, though, is of no great importance for us. What is important is what he did next. And, by asking the following two questions, Gadamer appears to violently change tack and plunge into a completely different tradition of philosophy:

“Is it right to reserve the concept of truth for conceptual knowledge? Must we not also acknowledge that the work of art possesses truth?”7

To be continued… but only after we have spoken with Wilfred.

Wilfred Bion, was a psychoanalyst who created a gulf between himself and the prevailing tradition, at the time represented by Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein. He was born three years before Gadamer but died twenty-three years before him. As far as we know they never met, however their ideas do seem to overlap quite agreeably in the area of conversation. According to the wonderful Joan and Neville Symington, Bion encouraged leaving “psychological comfort” for the more exciting prospect of venturing “forth into the unknown” to “risk the terror.”8 Shades of Nietzsche’s distaste for comfort being evident and notwithstanding, Bion recognised the limitations of his chosen discipline and wanted to find a more genuine approach that connected the analyst to the patient. The push for Bion, after twenty years of working in the fields of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, came with the realisation that “certain people seem to understand and agree with the analyst’s interpretations, yet remain untouched by analysis.”9 One particular example of his was a patient who, after working with him for some time and giving outward signs of “apparent acceptability” to his “various interpretations,”10 committed suicide.

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Such an obvious divide between rational thought, expressed through communication, and the emotional response of choosing suicide crystallised in Bion the need to re-think the workings of psychoanalysis and begin afresh. Extrapolating from other instances, perhaps less dramatic than the example given, Bion understood that if patients remained “untouched by analysis” then he needed to suspend all previous psychoanalytic thinking, such as Freud’s and Klein’s, to allow for a clean start and a new model to be born.

To affect such a re-birth, change was needed. For Bion, that change commences with the recognition that within psychoanalytic sessions the therapist also brings their own emotional responses, feelings, and desires. The analyst is not a robotic being detached from the proceedings that enters, conducts, and then exits the session clean and unchanged. The reality of encountering the patient and the session is often a time to roll up one’s sleeves and get stuck in, personally wading through muck, grime, and mutual influence. The conception of the observer / critic / analyst suspended from the scene, like the eye of God, didn’t track for Bion. Rather, he knew that they were fully present as thinking, feeling and emotional beings. Such ideas were already present in psychoanalytic activity, with concepts like transference, countertransference and projective identification coming into the psychoanalytic arena. However, these were bit players, secondary themes, or backdrops to the main performance. Bion’s move was to place the emotional presence of the analyst front and centre when considering  what takes place in the psychoanalytic session. Setting out on this particular path, Bion confidently strode further down this previously hidden tree-lined boulevard, with stride after stride taking him away from the comfort of all prior psychoanalytic procedure or theory.

700 Man Walking.fw

Revolutions, after their first intoxicating breath of what one believes is fresh air, come beset with the same problems to solve that were, apparently, so mis-managed by the previous administration. In our case, upon realising the importance of the psychoanalyst’s emotions, Bion had to find a method of incorporating this realisation within a psychoanalytic structure that led to an interpretation of the patient’s ‘problem.’ As Joan and Neville strive to make plain, even when observing the phenomenal content of the session, the emotional atmosphere, and the analyst’s own emotional state, the analyst is still left with the problem of how to analyse such phenomena.

Borrowing from philosophy, mathematics and even psychoanalysis, Bion attempted to illustrate such phenomena, but found himself in a community of one when having to analyse and process the data according to principles. By his own hand, though, he had carved out the space to construct a completely new design and as such presented his fellow psychoanalysts with two governing principles for determining a patient’s progress: “the emergence of truth and mental growth.”11 Such a neat and velvet-covered result, however, contained within it an iron rod of integrity that meant his principles were not to be mere platitudes. For Bion, the discovery of truth as a purpose of psychoanalysis was a commitment to be seen through to the bitter end, no matter how terrifying the ride for both patient and analyst. The white-knuckle roller coaster that Bion wanted analysts and patients to hop on board in order to release them magisterially into the realm of truth, was a little different to the safe and comparatively sedate entertainment Freudian patients were asked to participate in.

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Prior to Bion, and the extreme sport of truth-searching, psychoanalysis was locked inside a Freudian bowling alley where one had to wear regulation footwear and adhere respectfully to the ‘pleasure-pain principle’. Under Freud’s company protocol, analysts were instructed to observe patients’ behaviour according to that which provided them pleasure and that which provided them pain. Bion, the revolutionary, however, did not dismiss Freud’s principles out of hand and burn the bowling alley down. Rather, he understood that that Freud only provided for certain sectors of the community and that other factions needed more facilities; from simple skateboard parks to black run ski slopes. So, as well as conceding that a patient might act according to the pleasure – pain principle even in a psychoanalytic session and avoid the pain of confrontation by nodding along with their analyst’s interpretation, that same patient might actually unlock themselves if they underwent the emotional equivalent of a ‘no-holds-barred’ cage fight. For Bion, the challenge would be to get to the truth of why the patient acted to minimise the pain of arguing in the first place and then, from that potentially bloody and bruised starting point, work to affect the healing process by encouraging ‘mental growth’ in the patient / analyst sessions.

Bion, the revolutionary, thus issued his edict that all analysts should free themselves from wilful behaviour and gorging:

“The first point is for the analyst to impose on himself a positive discipline of eschewing memory and desire. I do not mean that ‘forgetting’ is enough: what is required is a positive act of refraining from memory and desire.”12

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According to Bion, memory is dependent upon the senses and comes under “subordination to the pleasure-pain principle”13 because the governing senses are also so subordinated. Consequently, memory is seen as an unreliable source for the attainment of the analyst’s goal, due to its adherence to a different set of values, viz. the analyst’s own ‘pleasure-pain principle.’ Desire, obviously, can equally be seen to adhere to the ‘pleasure-pain principle’ Interestingly, Bion doesn’t make this explicit, rather he focuses his attention upon the connection between desire and thoughts, with the latter being “formulations” of the former. To make his point, Bion tells us that “thoughts are not verbal formulations merely [but can] be harboured almost unaware [as] reminiscences or anticipations.”14 Consequently, by association, thoughts come under the auspices of desire and as such are related to the ‘pleasure-pain principle,’ and therefore must also be eschewed.

Having taken away varying tools of the psychoanalytic trade, Bion then proceeds to explain why his confiscation must be so harsh:

“The ‘memories’ and ‘desires’ to which I wish to draw attention have the following elements in common: they are ready formulated and therefore require no formulation; they derive from experience gained through the senses; they are evocations of feelings containing pleasure or pain.”15

In very simple terms: because the analyst’s memories and desires are already “formulated” they leave no space for the patient to affect the analyst or the interpretation. If one analyses with memories and desires, then there is no real need for the patient because the ‘pleasure-pain principle’ of the analyst won’t allow the patient to affect the outcome that has already been accomplished by the analyst. So, Bion insisted that memories and desires be eliminated from the analyst’s connection to the patient: they are obstructions.

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Some further examples give a different dimension to these twin devils, memory and desire. Not only do they obstruct, they also disrupt. This is evident in the countless episodes of regular patients seeing their analyst twice a week over a period of months or years whereby maps are keenly built up by analysts and their patients based upon memory so that each remains static to the other, as they also do unto themselves. Patient A continues to be the same patient as yesterday, and the day before, etc. Such a “collusive relationship,” Bion states, prevents the “emergence of an unknown, incoherent, formless void.”16 So, memory is no longer innocently obstructing progress, but is now malevolently disrupting the relationship between analyst and patient by making it petrify.

Desire can also operate for Bion in the same detrimental vein:

 “A certain class of patient feels ‘possessed’ by or imprisoned ‘in’ the mind of the analyst if he considers the analyst desires something relative to him – his presence, or his cure, or his welfare.”17

The desire to cure, according to Bion, places restrictions around the patient, which, on “a certain class”, can disrupt the patient’s progress because they can become “dominated by the ‘feeling’ that [they are] possessed by and contained in the analyst’s state of mind.”18 Clearly, for Bion, this is disruptive to the care of the patient, due to the analyst actually instigating further mental regression through their desire to cure.

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Having successfully beaten his enemy to the ground, Bion stands astride his victim and with blood coursing through his veins moves in for the kill. Or, to put it slightly more mildly, having made the case for the elimination of memory and desire in the analyst, Bion moves on to consider how someone could achieve this effect. The difficulty is that Bion’s bloodlust and menacing threats, for all their bravado and show, waver at the end, not through any fault of their own, but because their adversary is not corporeal. There is no blood to spill, no head to remove and raise aloft triumphantly. Bion’s nemesis is not something to which one can readily neuter. There can be no carving off of memory and desire from the analyst’s brain. Instead, one is left with a far harder challenge than brute slashing and slicing.

Bion crafted an image of the human as one that has wrapped rationality, thought, and language, around a more primitive inner being that is sometimes censored, lost, or argued away. This, of course, is central to psychoanalysis in general. Bion’s difference, however, is his realisation that for the analyst to recover any understanding of what occurs at the patient’s level of the inner being, rationality, the analyst’s old friend – with its cohorts of memory and desire – does not necessarily help and is in fact more likely to obstruct and disrupt this form of understanding. Instead of pursuing the patient rationally the analyst needs to turn inwards on themselves as well.

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For Bion, it was obvious that the analyst cannot connect with the deepest recesses of the patient’s being without attempting to connect with their own. If the analyst pursues the ‘rational’ path, then there will be a clash of two different modes of functioning which will frustrate any potential connection. The experience that both are trying to share will be blocked by the analyst stepping outside of that experience all the time in order to interpret, value, or judge, according to remembered or desired criteria. Bion, therefore, asked analysts to stop being scientists, in the strict sense of the word, and become once more experiential beings that interact with the world and are capable of really communicating with others. To this extent a Gadamerian ‘common language’ can feasibly be created together in ‘the moment’ or session.

An epistemological standard in the field of analytic philosophy can help here: Mary is a young woman who has spent all her life in a black and white room, she has never seen or experienced any colour, but she has scientifically studied everything that there is to know about colours and what it would be like to experience them. The question about Mary, then, is does she really know what it is to experience colour? Can it really be stated that she knows what that experience will be like? Whilst the debate in epistemological circles will continue ever onwards, Bion’s answer would be that she couldn’t possibly really know without coming out of the black and white room. Bion’s ultimate lesson for his analysts then, is that only by coming out of their scientific rooms can they significantly connect to their patients, by experiencing with them, so as to allow the possibility of ‘truths’ evolving and emerging.

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Gérald Bléandonu in his biography and exposition of Bion’s work describes this mode of practice as “a kind of anti-thinking.”19

Fortunately, it is not within our scope to follow the shock waves set off by Bion within his discipline. Instead, the fortune we seek resides in the very unprofitable, modest, and completely disrespected arena of one person encountering another as they blunder about their business at home, in the office, when out for a walk, travelling on a bus, or even when shopping. Can we learn at these moments to eschew our memory and desires and share an experience with another person that can be seen as establishing a form of contact? Can we reach the point where we create a common language together? Can we be instructed by Bion, in order to get past own our obstacles and sit side by side with the analysts as they learn his lesson? Are we ready to put to one side our proudly nurtured epistemologies, built up throughout the course of our lives as coping mechanisms and ways that we understand and react to the world around us, in order to have a real dance with no safety net?

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Looking into the eyes of another is an enormous act, if it is done properly. More often than not there is a mountain to climb. Personal obstacles, detritus, and bizarrely formed theories swerve into position, as if to ‘protect’ us from the infinite array of potential experiences that might ensue if we open our eyes. Can we converse without memory or desire? Can we allow ourselves to be open to the terror of what might happen if we do? Is it unethical to not even try?

This last question I can answer. “Yes.”


  1. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 367.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 378.
  4. Ibid., 379.
  5. Ibid., 385.
  6. David E. Linge. ‘Editor’s Introduction’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, xx.
  7. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 41-42.
  8. Symington, J. & N. The Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion, Routledge, 1996, 184.
  9. Ibid. 171.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 2.
  12. Bion, W. Attention and Interpretation, Maresfield Library, 1993, 31.
  13. Ibid., 30.
  14. Ibid., 30-31.
  15. Ibid., 31.
  16. Ibid., 52.
  17. Ibid., 42.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Bléandonu, G. Wilfred Bion: His Life and Works 1897-1979. Translated by Claire Pajaczkowska, Free Association Books, 1994, 218.


3. Horizons, therapy and Schopenhauer

3.fw“A person who has no horizon does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him.”1
Hans-Georg Gadamer

Shifting outlook from the inward looking processes involving prejudices, Gadamer catapulted his thinking outwards as far as the eye can see to re-evaluate another common term in day-to-day use: horizons. And, in the course of such appraising, he introduced a radical metaphor for how we engage with the world around us.

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Cutting to the chase, Gadamer’s new perspective was the realisation that the level of consciousness we have been able to attain so far is analogous to a personal horizon. Whereby we find ourselves, as he put it, with a “range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point.”2 Which, because Gadamer was focussed upon hermeneutics – the study of understanding – translates into consciousness having a fixed point from which it perceives the world. So, in order to have more than just a limited consciousness one needs to have a horizon. Without a horizon one is somewhere between a goldfish and a sty-bound pig. As Gadamer illustrated, “A person who has no horizon does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him”.3 Rounding it all out, the near-sighted person, if one follows Gadamer’s logic, has little actual consciousness. Heads up, then, if we want to have a respectable level of consciousness beyond the merely conscious. Look up and look around.

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Having a horizon means we can see a wider picture and are not limited to purely considering what is in front of us. Possessing a horizon gives us consciousness beyond that of the piscine and the porcine – something to which we can all aim at and hopefully master. However, we are limited by what we can see within our horizon and advancing beyond it requires a shift in consciousness. This should not present too drastic an obstacle though, because by the very fact of having a horizon – an important first step – we can also comprehend that there are sights beyond that horizon.

To my mind this is rather like taking a walk with Gadamer on a sunny day. Doing up our shoelaces, we leave the aquatic and animal kingdoms behind as we stroll out into the farmer’s field next-door to meander through his little patch of heaven and wheat, which we have gazed upon everyday from inside the cosy double-glazed and arm-chaired paradise, we call home. Thrashing between the golden stems of wheat, we scare the crows we have watched so often from our window settling down to munch on their delicious free meal full of starch, fibre and natural goodness. The farmer’s combine-harvester is parked next to his barn on the left, just as it always is when we have looked out in-between feasting ourselves on Gadamer’s nutrition packed, well maybe just tasty, plum jam sandwiches.

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The point being that by wandering into the horizon we have seen so many times before we still only really see the same old things we used to cogitate upon before we set a single shoe-clad foot outside our door. Gadamer, though, unbeknownst to me has got his hiking boots on.

Gadamer, you see, has realised that there is something beyond our own familiar vista, something beyond our horizon that could be explored. So, by concentrating our efforts and shifting our lumbering consciousness up we push through the last of the wheat to emerge at the far side of the farmer’s field. A tall hedgerow bounds the horizon that we have so far managed to see, with who knows what on the other side. Wishing that I had thought to wear a thicker coat to protect me from the thorns I plunge into the thicket after Gadamer.

Previously unknown territory slowly comes into view as I adjust my glasses and brush off the common knapweed, St. John’s wort, and butcher’s broom to say nothing of the wild fauna that seems to have wormed and wiggled its way down my back. A lunar landscape does not appear, although, how would I know that one such a scene was not there to greet me, seeing as how I have never gone beyond the comfort of my horizon before? Instead, there is a rather worn out country lane with a pub peaking out from round the bend on the left. Gadamer, possibly in need of refreshment, has already started walking in that direction. It’s almost as if Gadamer knew that if the vantage point changed then so would the horizon!

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Over the hedge a whole new horizon has come into view and I’m glad Gadamer persuaded me to explore it. As I sit next to him sipping my, apparently local, refreshing cider, as the barman has informed us, it seems that by altering my vantage point I am achieving a genuine new horizon where new levels of understanding can be gained. I mention to Gadamer that maybe after we finish our pints we could continue to explore and possibly find slightly more erudite arenas into which we can cast ourselves.

The point being that not only am I enjoying going beyond my traditional horizon, I am also open to such shifts in my vantage point from where I can conceive and create new horizons of experience. So, even though our own personal horizons may be “limited and finite,”4 as a nice Gadamerian chap, Richard J. Bernstein observed, they are also “essentially open.”5 Achieving openness, though, as many eastern philosophers will tell you, is not effortless. Would I ever have got beyond my horizon limit, the hedge, if it weren’t for Gadamer? Although, it must be stated for the record that I was open to the prospect. A stance key to Gadamer’s concept of individual horizons.

Moving on, there is a second critical stage to Gadamer’s work on horizons and how we think, understand and engage with the world. The introduction to this next stage can be a little tricky, but it is navigable if we take it slowly.

For Gadamer, understanding per se is something that is “historically effected”6. Our consciousness is not something that has popped out of nowhere, it has evolved throughout our lives and been effected by our own personal history and gives us our own unique horizon from within which we understand and process the world. As Gadamer said, probably repeatedly, but in this instance in conversation with Carsten Dutt, “no one is a blank sheet of paper”7. Consequently, each of us is different and sees the world through our own “historically effected consciousness”8, or ‘horizon’. Now, the tricky bit is how we bump our horizons together.

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Gadamer, rather obliquely, rolls the issues of horizon bumping and “historically-effected consciousness” together:

“The task of historical understanding also involves acquiring an appropriate historical horizon, so that what we are trying to understand can be seen in its true dimensions.”9

Right, what does that mean? The umbrella consideration of ‘appropriate’ is a useful starting point because I take him to mean that we need to be self-aware and understand ourselves as individuals that have been affected by our history: we are not objective gods, we are unique subjects. And, as unique subjects, we are limited and finite in our current understanding. However, in-built within each of us is the capacity to mature, adapt and grow intellectually. As well as recognising our own capacities, though, we also need to regard that which we survey in its “true dimensions,” by which I understand Gadamer to mean that we need to have respect for what we observe. And, this is the absolutely critical bit. We must take seriously, to the point of imperative, how the other – that which is not self – is to be incorporated within the metaphor of our personal horizon.

In order that we do not objectify the other, or their claim, we must avoid trying to assimilate them into our horizon as it stands, but also we should not attribute an alternative horizon to them into which we transplant ourselves whilst ignoring our own horizon. Instead of objectifying them, as in the former, or indeed objectifying ourselves, as in the latter, we need to recognise the fluidity of ourselves with the other and attempt to achieve what Gadamer termed a ‘fusion of horizons.’ Exciting and stimulating as this ‘fusion’ sounds, Gadamer very quickly grounds this concept before it takes flight in a flurry of naïve enthusiasm to conjure images of brightly adorned dancers grinning and singing vacuously about their mutual love for each other and the planet. Gadamer, after all was neither a hippy nor a Hollywood hack but a careful and methodical philosopher who instantly after he evoked the wonderful phase “fusion of horizons”10, determined that the most important application to this idea would not be musical fervour but order, discipline, and restraint.

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For Gadamer, the “fusion of horizons” required regulation, and this he saw as the task of a “historically effected consciousness.” Again, when talking to Dutt once more, Gadamer said “we must take the encounter [the potential fusing of horizons] seriously” because “one of the most essential experiences a human being can have is that another person comes to know him or her better.”11 Isn’t that what we all want – to be understood? To have someone that listens properly to the wit and wisdom we have to bestow whilst also appreciating the depths of our torment and highs of our joyful responses to the world.

A personal ego masseuse or oral amanuensis, however, was not Gadamer’s end-goal here. Rather, he realised that a genuine dialogue needs to be created in order for there to be a fusing, as opposed to a swamping, of horizons. One-way traffic really isn’t going to cut it in Gadamer’s world. This is because he deeply believed that, just as we are each finite up to any moment of time, we are also each capable of being shown more than we can see within our own personal horizon. Or, as he said to Dutt, “Through an encounter with the other we are lifted above the narrow confines of our own knowledge… because there is always something about which we are not correct and are not justified in maintaining.”12 There is always another horizon to be shown or explore, and another hedge to be pushed through.

The regulation of any “fusing of horizons,” demanded seriousness, as we have seen. However, for Gadamer the demand went even further. As far as he was concerned, such regulation would be given the principle focus of his attention because, for him, it was “the central problem of hermeneutics.”13 The application of such a fusion, therefore, was given no small role within Truth and Method. Gadamer, warming to his theme, insisted that the crux of understanding compelled the avoidance of any objectification of the other, or oneself, in order to allow each to entwine with the other, in a fluid movement that generates understanding. One has to say that surely Gadamer is right when he commits himself to this steadfast position. How many times in our intellectual awakening and broadening, when chewing the fat with a close friend, colleague or family member, have we stumbled upon either a shared eureka moment or personal insight from one to the other. The process of openly fusing our horizons in a dialogue of trust and respect can yield dramatic shifts of vantage points in our consciousness.

Two People ideas

So much was Gadamer enamoured with this “central problem of hermeneutics” that he spent most of his adult life eagerly entertaining interested parties, from near and far, in debates and conversation. A famous example of his desire in this area was his wish to converse with Jacques Derrida. Unfortunately, it seems that the respect and trust was not there from Derrida’s side when they finally met publically at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1981. Derrida, Gadamer analysed subsequently, was not “capable of engaging in genuine conversation”14 and saw “both Heidegger and myself as part of the logocentrist camp.”15 It appeared, to Gadamer, that Derrida didn’t want to play his game. Which, one can tell, would have caused Gadamer great inner turmoil. To be able to converse with the great French deconstructionist and probe each other’s horizons could have led to great things in Gadamer’s mind, whilst also, by the very fact of conversing, giving his version of philosophical hermeneutics implicit validity. Instead, we are left with Gadamer’s rather mournful and tragic encapsulation “Whoever [by which he meant, Derrida] wants me to take deconstruction to heart and insists on difference stands at the beginning of a conversation, not at its end.”16

Perhaps, in Derrida’s case, Gadamer chose badly because Jacques felt he had to stick to his own guns and not be lulled into what he presumably saw as some kind of trap. Or, maybe, as Gadamer suggested in a more fruitful conversation (with Dutt), dialogue just wasn’t the great deconstructionist’s strength. Derrida apart, it’s really not hard to see that Gadamer was on to something ethically when trying to prioritise the “fusion of horizons,” by which I take him to mean the cultivation of trust and respect. Indeed, it is testament to his belief in his project that he had his conversations with Dutt when he was ninety-three years old when he was “genial, direct, and never at a loss”17. Quite a powerful message in terms of zest for life and thirst for what he believed in: people can converse and, together, they can constructively (Derridean pun intended) push the boundaries of each other’s understanding. An ethical thirst, n’est pas?

The cultural output that I want to explore now has its basis in psychotherapy, but is in the form of a novel. Dr. Irvin D. Yalom had over forty years of practising existential and group psychotherapy behind him before he wrote The Schopenhauer Cure as an open narrative that tries to realistically portray the inner workings of group therapy.

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Spoiler alert: if you are consider reading The Schopenhauer Cure some elements of the plot will be given away in this chapter.

The novel presents its characters whilst they attempt to grapple with personal issues, relationship problems and even the terminal diagnosis of the group therapist, Dr. Julius Hertzfeld. The path taken by Yalom in turning to literature to shine a light into the academic and practicing world of psychotherapy is one that few people can successfully navigate, but he is one of that particular métiers grand achievers. Of particular interest, however, is his ability to translate rigorous training and a lengthy career into believable characters who work together to find mutual understanding. And, this is where we find Gadamer’s “fusing” of “horizons.”18 By using artistic representation, Yalom creates shifts in his characters’ consciousnesses to drive them on towards new vantage points beyond their existing horizons.

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The plot itself turns upon the therapist, Julius Hertzfeld, attempting to come to terms with the news that he has “one good year”19 left, before cancer puts an end to his career and everything else. In a solid and authentic manner Julius begins the process of examining his life and its internal worth. His deceased wife and living children are considered briefly before Yalom pushes the plotline to Julius’ thoughts about his career, which naturally mirrors Yalom’s own, with decades of therapeutic work with individuals and groups.

Thumbing through his old case files, Julius finds confirmation of his ability to treat his clients effectively, with positive reinforcement coming from every file containing closure or follow-up notes. The follow-ups are sometimes written years after the therapy sessions had ended. There is one exception in his life’s work, though. The name Philip Slate surfaces through the files as an individual he worked with without success twenty years previously. According to the files, Philip was a confirmed sex-addict, with an impressive intelligence and striking handsomeness, working in an unsatisfying job. The sticking point for Julius, as he begins to recall this particular case, was Philip’s desire to overcome his addiction and consign himself to study. Fixating upon Philip, Julius realises within himself that he needs to know what happened to this symbolic fly in his ointment.

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Seeking Philip out, Julius makes contact and discovers two things. The first is that Philip still appears as “cold, uncaring [and] oblivious of others”20 as he used to be. The second, rather disturbingly for Julius, is that Philip wants to become a therapist. A discovery, which in combination with Philip’s obvious inability to relate ‘normally’ to others, fascinates and horrifies Julius. Yalom, having crafted the creative tension and pull between the two main characters, then allows the plot to weave its way through their discussions and a series of group therapy sessions involving a cast of well-developed but minor roles alongside Julius and Philip. In addition, Schopenhauer’s life is presented in alternating chapters to the main storyline, as a backdrop to Philip’s new obsession. The idea being that he can be a philosophical counsellor with Schopenhauer as his guide.

Philip’s character, as hewn by Yalom, is a deeply self-involved misanthrope who believes that he can impart the wisdom of Schopenhauer to those he treats or works with in Julius’ group. The difficulty, that Julius sees all to clearly, is that Philip has no clue how to relate to other people. Philip avoids eye contact as much as possible and proclaims, when directly challenged, that he needs to focus on the words of Schopenhauer and that he prefers to keep his own council. Philip is also highly self-opinionated. When asked to provide feedback on Julius’ therapeutic work all those years ago he is completely damning:

“Overall, I’d have to say that my therapy with you was a complete failure. A time-consuming [three years] and expensive failure. I think I did my job as a patient. As far as I can recall, I was fully cooperative, worked hard, came regularly, paid my bills, remembered dreams, followed leads offered.”21

When probed deeper by Julius, Philip continues in much the same vein:

“Eventually I realized you didn’t know how to help and I lost faith in our work together. I recall that you spent inordinate amounts of time exploring my relationships – with others and especially with you. This never made sense to me. It didn’t then. It still doesn’t.”22

Philip ends his critical volley by sharing with Julius the light he has found himself at the end of the tunnel:

“I decided to heal myself… I developed a relationship with a therapist, the perfect therapist, the therapist who offered me what no one else had been able to give… Yes, Arthur Schopenhauer, [is] my therapist.”23

450 Schopenhauer

Yalom gives Philip’s horizon concrete definition, in that it amounts to the writings of Schopenhauer, after he first studied the Ancient Greeks and Germanic philosophers who followed Kant. Consequently, Philip’s world is viewed through a Schopenhauerian lens that appears to give him comfort and all the understanding he needs. However, Julius cannot agree. After everything that his career has been pinned on, Julius sees the limits that Philip has set himself, especially when realising that Philip just wants to ‘preach’ the teachings of Schopenhauer in the world of therapy.

So, the Gadamerian task for Julius, in his final year, is to work with Philip to get him to see beyond the world as portrayed by Schopenhauer and into eyes of those around him. En route, Julius dangles the potential quid pro quo that he, Julius, might also learn something from Philip about Schopenhauer, although Julius is in his own denial as to any probable benefit coming forth.

Both parties, hence, set out from their unique horizon points in an attempt to enlighten the other through the arena of dialogue in group therapy. The antagonism of Philip’s approach to life ruffles Julius in the group sessions, especially when his group seem to hang on Philip’s insights, such when he first introduced philosophy:

“Nietzsche once wrote that a major difference between man and the cow was that the cow knows how to exist, how to live without angst – that is, fear – in the blessed now, unburdened by the past and unaware of the terrors of the future… in this, as in so much else, he looted the works of Schopenhauer.”24

Julius response, as Yalom gives it, is to squirm in his chair thinking he must have been out his mind to bring Philip into his group, when there is a stunned but reflective silence from the others. In contra-poise, Julius states his thinking in a one-on-one discussion with Philip:

It’s not ideas, nor vision, nor tools that truly matter in therapy. If you debrief patients at the end of therapy about the process, what do they remember? Never the ideas – it’s always the relationship. They rarely remember an important insight their therapist offered but generally fondly recall their personal relationship with the therapist.”25

700 x 343 alt Therapy

In a further group session there is a direct clash of horizons as Philip attempts to enlighten the group as to Schopehauer’s views on personal attachments.

“The more attachments one has, the more burdensome life becomes and the more suffering one experiences when one is separated from these attachments. Schopenhauer and Buddhism both hold that one must release oneself from attachments and…”26

At this point Julius interrupts. “I don’t think that is helpful to me… and I’m also not sure if this is where this meeting should be going.”27 Noting a pregnant glance between two of the other group members, Julius continued:

“I come in on that in the opposite way: attachments, and plenty of them, are indispensable ingredients of a full life, and to avoid attachments because of anticipated suffering is a sure recipe for being only partially alive.”28

The two viewpoints, quite clearly are at loggerheads, so much so that one of other group members calls Julius on it, because he is acting in a very unconventional manner.

In this strained manner, the group sessions, week by week, continue with Philip still avoiding eye contact and quoting Schopenhauer, whilst Julius tries to reign himself in from being pushed by Philip’s lack of, or resistance to, interpersonal dynamics. At the same time, Julius attempts to adopt the protective role of therapist for Philip when he can see things reaching a boiling point, such as when one of the group returns from a visit to India to find the man she lost her virginity to, in a callous and unfeeling relationship, sitting opposite, in her beloved therapy group. When the truth of Philip’s behaviour fifteen years ago comes out, Julius is conflicted but wants to try and help both Philip and Pam, the unfortunate group returnee, to work through the pain of seeing each other once more. Philip attempts to detach himself from his previous life and behaviour by referring to himself in the third person when Pam confronts him as to what he did to her. Using this as an opener to work on the ‘here and now’ and the ‘process’ rather than ‘content’ of their obviously tortured discussion, Julius asks Philip why he used the third person, “I wonder, could you have been implying that you’re a different person now from the man you were then?”29 At this moment Philip opens his eyes and gazes into Julius’, in apparent gratitude for moving the dialogue into safer and more constructive territory. A connection, for Julius, has finally been made.

700 Hands reaching

Julius builds on this breakthrough by pushing back on one of Philip’s statements, that he feels happier when he does not have to deal with people, by saying, “but, if you’re going to be in a group or lead groups or try to help clients work on their relationships with others, you absolutely cannot avoid entering into relationships with them.”30 Philip, from now on edges towards Julius’ horizon and Julius seems to give the impression that he is trying to edge towards Philip’s by remarking that maybe he’ll reflect on Philip’s proffered Heideggerian statement regarding death being the “impossibility of further possibility.”31

Julius and Philip work through several key crisis moments over the months, ebbing and flowing into each other’s horizon, culminating in the final group meeting. There are unsettling instances and moments of real progress on the way which demonstrate the sure but uneasy shift in Philip’s centre of gravity, or vantage point. At the final session Julius summarises their situation or, in Gadamerian terms, their horizons:

“I don’t believe we’re as far apart as you think. I don’t disagree with much that you and Schopenhauer have said about the tragedy of the human condition. Where you go east and I go west is when we turn to the question of what to do about it.”32

Later Philip breaks down looking directly into Julius’ eyes and passionately says with tears and self-loathing “no one who has known me has loved me. Ever. No one could love me.”33 At this moment, Pam, the catalyst of his first shift in moving towards Julius’ way of viewing the world, steps in and says, “I could have loved you, Philip.”34 Julius’ work is done as Philip’s breakdown reveals that Philip can trust and respect other people and that he knows he will be better off for it.

700 Head in hands

Strictly speaking, the fusion of Gadamerian horizons between Julius and Philip never finds concrete realisation in terms of duration. Instead, what Yalom shows is the ethically imbued human dance that occurs in brief glimpses when two people see eye to eye on something that they have both been unable to resolve on their own. The fusion of horizons is after all the tantalising child’s blown bubble that mesmerises those whose attention it dazzles but then bursts as soon as it is touched. All the same, it makes life seem somehow richer for its passing existence.

700 bubble


  1. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 302.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Bernstein, Richard J. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1983. 143.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001. 307.
  7. Gadamer, H-G. Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary. Edited and translated by Richard E. Palmer, Yale University Press, 2001, 43.
  8. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 307.
  9. Ibid., 303.
  10. See Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 307.
  11. Gadamer, H-G. Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary. Edited and translated by Richard E. Palmer, Yale University Press, 2001, 49.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 307.
  14. Gadamer, H-G. Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary. Edited and translated by Richard E. Palmer, Yale University Press, 2001, 61-62.
  15. Ibid., 62.
  16. Ibid., 61.
  17. Ibid., 1.
  18. See Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 307.
  19. Yalom, Irvin D. The Schopenhauer Cure, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006, 11.
  20. Ibid., 19.
  21. Ibid., 26.
  22. Ibid., 28.
  23. Ibid. 30.
  24. Ibid., 83.
  25. Ibid., 62-63.
  26. Ibid. 99.
  27. Ibid., 100.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid., 180.
  30. Ibid., 182.
  31. Ibid., 197.
  32. Ibid., 331.
  33. Ibid., 334.
  34. Ibid.


2. Prejudice in Bohemia


If we can only shift our perspective…

In addition to the well-known churning undercurrent that is Friedrich Nietzsche, philosophy also has the calm, but no less potent, waters of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Within his magnum opus, Truth and Method, Gadamer, just like Nietzsche, questioned the self-assumed sufficiency and appropriateness of more ‘traditional’ approaches to thinking. In his text, Gadamer set down a re-interpretation of a neglected and overlooked philosophical school of thought: hermeneutics, the study of understanding. And, as far as Gadamer was concerned, both hermeneutics and philosophy needed to address what it is for us to live, breathe, and be among others, rather than mulching at the same old stagnant metaphysical issues year after year.

It should be quite clear as to why Gadamer appeals.

In order for Gadamer to fulfil on the deal and address this perceived need, he began a series of re-evaluations based upon a particular type of experience. As one might expect this would not revolve around ordinary experiences. His re-evaluations went a lot deeper than the tasting of a Danish pastry with one’s early morning coffee.

Bun and coffee

Wisdom was his goal. A most underrated, forgotten and abused currency in our age of science and thrusting knowledge economy. For example, why is it that we can understand the importance of sustaining the resources of our planet, through a process of environmental education and change, and yet be content to use the same intellectual tools that once raped and pillaged the now revered landscape? Perhaps, an innovative approach is needed which prioritises the importance of wisdom before fact detection?

Eloquently and persuasively, Gadamer began to outline how we might re-mould the flesh and bones of our thinking. One can almost see Nietzsche smiling, as his vocal demand for a re-evaluation of values finds a kindred spirit. However, rather than pursuing a course of outrage against Christian values and morality, Nietzsche’s personal bête noire, Gadamer chose to re-evaluate ostensibly less controversial subjects.

Basing the whole of his re-evaluative process upon the idea of experience, Gadamer tackled three particular areas: prejudices, horizons, and conversation. By taking each in turn, we shall see not only how Gadamer unveiled his philosophy, but also how to open our eyes, so that we may notice, acknowledge and welcome the other into our lives and thoughts.


Beginning with prejudices and taking as his starting point the person who directs their gaze ‘on the things themselves’ in order to understand them, Gadamer rapidly constructed his argument and demonstrated his willingness to break free of the rigid conventions of ‘traditional’, or phenomenological, thought by invoking an old philosophical chestnut.

In-between ‘inventing’ the German language and becoming the fixed axis from which both analytic and continental philosophies were to descend, Immanuel Kant wrote the following in the Critique of Pure Reason:

“it is… solely from the human standpoint that we can speak of space, of extended things, etc… This predicate [of space] can be ascribed to things only in so far as they appear to us, that is, only to objects of sensibility.”1

One hundred and eighty years later, in California, Thomas Kuhn wrote, “What a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see.”2 Depending on how you like your philosophy, and respecting that each is starting from a unique place in time and thought, one of these philosophers that I’ve caught and ‘biopsied’ could attract your momentary attention with their idea and set off a sparkling new train of thought. However, the point about which they are both circling is the notion of ‘theory-laden observation’. This, if my friends across the ages and I have not quite made clear, is the idea that we cannot regard the world mutely, we always observe with prejudice.

Returning to Gadamer, we can find that his programme did not stumble on the old polished chestnut. For him, the person gazing at the thing itself, for example a book, undertakes a process whereby they “project a meaning for the text… because [they] read the text with particular expectations in regard to a certain meaning.”3 Such “expectations” do not come from the thing that is gazed upon. Instead, the “person who is trying to understand is exposed to distraction from fore-meanings.”4 These “fore-meanings,” according to Gadamer, come from our prejudices, our internal modes of orientation, with which we try to understand the world. They underpin our engagement with everything that we sense, and they help us to understand the new, the suspicious, the mundane, the beautiful, etc.

Predict - fore meanings

The problem Gadamer had in determining prejudices in this manner, however, was the traditional use of the term ‘prejudice.’ This he traced to the Enlightenment and its resolve to eliminate the twin prejudices of over hastiness and authority through the “methodological disciplined use of reason,”5 which acted as “safeguard” to “all error.”6   The root of such enlightened thinking, for Gadamer, lay in Descartes’ method where “over-hastiness is the source of all errors that arise in the use of one’s own reason,”7 and authority “is responsible for one’s not using one’s own reason at all.”8 Prejudices, therefore, due to Descartes’ methodology, were seen as hindrances to reason and were not to be employed by any ‘enlightened’ person wishing to purge themselves of faulty reasoning from the end of the 16th century onwards. Gadamer, however, sought to oppose this methodological decision and asserted that “the fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself.”9 Gadamer’s self-appointed task, then, was to bring prejudices back from their exile and to give them new meaning:

“Prejudices are not necessarily unjustified and erroneous, so that they inevitably distort the truth… They are simply the conditions whereby we experience something – whereby what we encounter says something to us.”10

So, for Gadamer, prejudices are not restriction based but are the modes with which we grapple the world around us. They are the platform from which understanding, experience, and connection can commence. Without them, we would begin each day anew, but learn nothing. Everything would be meaningless and confusing because we would not be able to form any internal correlation between one event and the next. Without our Gadamerian prejudices, we would be lost, confused, and probably extinct.


Continuing in this rich vein, Gadamer distinguished between different types of prejudice:

“The prejudices and fore-meanings that occupy the interpreter’s consciousness are not at his free disposal. He cannot separate in advance the productive prejudices that enable understanding from the prejudices that hinder it and lead to misunderstanding.”11

Our prejudices, it appears, cannot be identified as to which are blind and which are illuminating. They are there to allow growth and understanding but they can also restrict and disable us. Choosing which ones to apply in any given circumstance goes beyond the ability of most individuals and would, I believe, be quite dehumanising. Imagine being able to choose which prejudices to apply. Our behaviour would be invariably inconsistent. It would be as if we were a machine that had no real investment in the community we inhabited. Decisions would be channelled through us as if by a committee of puppet masters who each had a period of unique ownership over our corporeality at any one time. There would be multiple conflicts in our personality.

Coming back to Gadamer, though, his main concerns regarding prejudices were that we need to be aware of their existence and that they exert influence whenever we try to understand something. So, for Gadamer, the crucial idea was that we need to be aware of our own biases and that we have prejudices, or fore-meanings, that help/hinder when we encounter the world around us.

Know Yourself

The world around us, of course, is a splendid diversity of things. It could be a book, it could be an artwork or even another person. The vital issue at stake is that it is other to us.

So, by adding together the awareness of one’s own prejudices with recognition of the autonomy of the text, artwork, or other person, we start to get an equation whereby the result is the requirement for a particular kind approach to the world and the other things that are in it. Georgia Warnke, one of those wonderful people who realise the importance of Gadamer, describes this approach as “a specifically moral attitude.”12

As with many other topics that we shall look at in this series, we can start to visualise some points of distinction in how we can regard the world. Gadamer uses the example of ‘Thou’ to help separate these ways of encountering other entities beside ourselves in our universe.

In a few words, the first way of experiencing a ‘Thou’ uses the other as a means, by treating them as an object, such as a god – or really the idea of a god, whereby we modify our behaviour to meet our own ends according to how we decide to interpret the god. Again, using minimal expression, the second way is self-regarding, because the other is eliminated by a presumption that effects to understand them “better than he or she understands him or herself,”13 which actually only leaves one communicating with oneself. This being, for Gadamer, where “one allows one’s prejudices to prevail unchecked because one simply takes them for the original meaning of the text itself.”14 The third way “is the moral experience of the Thou in which one allows ‘him to really say something to us.’ In this moral relationship, we neither objectify the other nor claim to speak for him or her.”15 The non-reduction to either objects or ourselves, as seen in the first and second ways of experiencing, allows “others to be and to express themselves.”16 In the course of this ‘moral’ relationship, which allows the other “to be and express themselves,” there is an opening up of our prejudices which can allow possible modification by the other. Such a process can effect a change at the level of our understanding and at the meta-level of our prejudices.

So, by not treating the other as a means to an end, objectifying them or subsuming them into ourselves, courtesy of overactive and dominating prejudices, one can find oneself free to adopt a “specifically moral attitude” towards the other that allows for a unique and exclusive encounter to take place.


Consequently, the solution to the problem is within our own hands. If we can only shift our perspective on what we want from life and social living by learning to recognise our prejudices and having the courage, strength and confidence to leave them to the side on occasion as opposed to allowing them to dictate and march headlong through our relationships. There is an obviousness here that lends itself to a branch of philosophical thinking still little understood in the English-speaking world. Eastern Philosophy, my crude understanding tells me, unlike Western Philosophy has the gathering of knowledge firmly in second place to the primary task in hand: the gaining of wisdom. Consequently, much of this philosophical genre is taken up with profound and poetic statements that seek to find a way through our icy exterior and resonate briefly with that core of soulfulness or wisdom that we carry around inside each and every one of us. An inner kernel of purity, innocence and virtue, if you desire to embellish, which lies buried beneath a lifetime of facts and interpretations built-up and layered to form an almost impenetrable shell, which both separates as it protects. However, rather than treating you to a tangential eastern interlude, in whose waters I should all too rapidly be out of my depth, we shall return to Gadamer whose next focus, on horizons, will do the job quite nicely as it happens, but only after consulting with a high-functioning sociopath. The clues are there…


In the Sign of Four, Sherlock Holmes says to John Watson, “Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them.”17 From such a statement, one might argue, that Sherlock Holmes’ view of women is his prejudice. And, further, in one so highly critical of other people’s capacities for observation, it could also be said that Arthur Conan Doyle reveals an elephantine blind spot in, this, his character’s second outing.

In July 1891, The Strand magazine published A Scandal in Bohemia as the first in a series of twelve short stories containing the exploits of Holmes and Watson. Two novels preceded this batch, A Study in Scarlet, first published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887, and The Sign of Four, first published in Lippincott’s Magazine in February 1890. Within these first forays of Sherlock Holmes, of whom Conan Doyle would eventually write a total of four novels and fifty-six short stories, an incredibly clear and precise picture is given of the self-proclaimed consulting detective’s abilities and limits.


Famously, in A Study in Scarlet, Watson went to the trouble of writing a list, of his new friend and co-lodger in 221B Baker Street, in order to try and make sense of Holmes’ unusual knowledge surfeit and deficit in different arenas of intellectual endeavour:

“Sherlock Holmes — his limits.

  1. Knowledge of literature – nil.
  2. Knowledge of philosophy – nil.
  3. Knowledge of astronomy – nil.
  4. Knowledge of politics – feeble.
  5. Knowledge of botany – variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
  6. Knowledge of geology – practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he received them.
  7. Knowledge of chemistry – profound.
  8. Knowledge of anatomy – accurate, but unsystematic.
  9. Knowledge of sensational Literature – immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
  10. Plays the violin well.
  11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
  12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.”18

Watson then throws the list into the fire in frustration and despair at attempting to grapple with Holmes’ bizarre spheres of interest. However, as is well-known in literary circles, such a device does serve to provide illustration of the character it portrays even if it is reportedly dashed to oblivion by its author. Holmes is given his own treatment and placed under the microscope.

In addition to Watson’s list, Conan Doyle gives us many defining characteristics of his creation. In the same novel, we see Holmes’ strict adherence to the scientific method when questioned by Watson concerning his unwillingness to speculate as to why Tobias Gregson had summoned them to 3 Lauriston Gardens. “No data… It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement,”19 Holmes explains. Conan Doyle also presents in the same text, Holmes’ complete agreement with Gregson, to the point of regarding it as a virtue, that one must never overlook items that might appear trivial: “To a great mind, nothing is little.”20 So, thoroughness gets added to Holmes’ portfolio as Conan Doyle continues to craft his character. Next, though, comes a moment whereby Holmes becomes flesh and Conan Doyle avoids the pitfall of fashioning a two-dimensional dramatis persona.

700 To A Great Mind
When attempting to prove that a box containing two pills is connected with the murders of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson, Holmes cuts one of the pills in half, dissolves it in milk and places the saucer of contents in front of a dying terrier, which Watson was due to put down. Expecting the pill to contain poison, Holmes is irritated to see no adverse effect on the dog. The scene is played out in front of Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade, as well as Watson. Holmes, of course, is keen to demonstrate his powers to all. Thwarted, he gnaws at his lip, drums his fingers and after “pacing wildly up and down the room,” 21 he seizes upon the cause of his problem, cuts up the other pill and dissolves it into the remaining milk in the saucer. At first lick, the terrier shivers and takes it last breath. Holmes then exclaims, “I ought to know by this time that when a fact appears to be opposed to a long train of deductions, it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation.”22 In so saying, Conan Doyle demonstrates that Holmes is cognisant that even he can make errors and that when following the scientific method it becomes necessary to formulate a new theory to both explain the previously known facts as well as the latest piece of information that caused the error. Holmes, then, can be seen to have humility as well as the scientific tenacity to see things differently as he has so far understood them to be.

In The Sign of Four, Conan Doyle resumes addressing Holmes skillset by informing his readership that Holmes has written a monograph concerning the tracing of footsteps and another “upon the influence of a trade upon the form of a hand, with lithotypes of the hands of slaters, sailors, cork-cutters, compositors, weavers, and diamond polishers.”23 Holmes also conducts, at Watson’s request, a demonstration of his powers of observation upon a watch previously owed by Watson’s father and elder brother, which causes Watson to accuse Holmes of conducting inquiries into the history of his unhappy brother, so successful is Holmes at performing deductions from minutiae.

Watson and Holmes at home
Consequently, the picture Conan Doyle paints of Holmes within these first two outings is rich and nuanced. We find a self-assured workaholic at the peak of his profession and abilities, whose gifts extend to being able to observe and deduce from the smallest details in a manner that seems to betray an element of super-human powers – so proficient is he within his chosen discipline. It is, therefore, all the more startling to discover that Holmes should have any prejudices at all. One would think that he would have obliterated such blind spots from his life in order not to hamper his mastery over his work.

To regard women as a class of their own, and fall prey to the standards of the time, where in everything else he shows himself to be above the common herd is quite surprising. However, one really needs to say ‘hats off’ to Conan Doyle for driving Holmes into the dead-end of male stereotypes and realising that such a position urgently needed to be challenged. Or maybe, Conan Doyle wasn’t that politically aware and ahead of his time to foreground the matter? Perhaps, he just wanted to rock Holmes a little on the pedestal he given his creation? As is well known, the author had a rather uneasy relationship with his creation and, indeed, did try to kill him off at the Reichenbach Falls a few years later. Either way, the presentation given in A Scandal in Bohemia is one where quite clearly Holmes is outwitted and relegated to second place by Irene Adler, whom he, forever afterwards, was to call ‘the woman’. Importantly, though, it is his prejudice that is shown up, caught short and found wanting.

700 scandal-in-bohemia-manuscript_2
At times, Holmes’ prejudice regarding women plays and dances around the edges of objectification, with Conan Doyle giving him such remarks as, “She is the daintiest thing under a bonnet on this planet. So say the Serpentine Mews to a man.”24 Deftly let off the ‘objectifying-women’ hook, for the moment, because he is apparently reporting what other men think, as opposed to giving any personal insight, Holmes is also able to retain what Watson described as his “cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind.”25

However, Holmes does fall completely into the trap of prejudice in his regard of women by conceptualising them as a set, with no real personal individuation. A two-dimensional viewpoint makes him presume that he can understand ‘them’ better than ‘they’ can understand themselves. Such an attitude allows him pronounce generalisations like, “Women are naturally secretive, and they like to do their own secreting,”26 as he remarks when discussing where Adler has contrived to hide the compromising photograph of her and the King of Bohemia. (The photograph dating from a time when the king was a mere crown prince and in love with Adler, whom he described as the “well-known adventuress”27). Holmes, then, further embroils himself by confidently bragging, “I will get her to show me,”28 when Watson naturally asked how he will find the photograph when five attempts, initiated by others in the King’s employ have failed.

700 The King of Bohemia

As the story progresses and follows Holmes’ carefully laid out plans, Adler does indeed ‘show’ him where she has secreted the photograph. The call of “fire”29 is raised by Watson and other Holmesian actors in the street when a plumbers smoke rocket is set off in her sitting room, containing a seemingly injured Holmes, disguised as a “simple-minded non-conformist clergyman.”30 In his discussion, after the fact, Holmes explains his theory to Watson’s ever-open ear: “When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most. It is a perfectly overpowering impulse… A married woman grabs at her baby – an unmarried one reaches for her jewel box.”31 On the back of his success, though, Holmes starts to get his comeuppance.

Thrilled by the events conforming to his theory, Holmes massively underestimates Adler and overlooks that she might actually think and behave in a way different than the one Holmes has prescribed for women. Believing that he is firmly in control of the situation, because he ‘won’ the first round and ‘knows’ how women will behave, Holmes decides that he can wait until eight the following morning to reveal the location of the photograph to the King of Bohemia. This is because he believes Adler won’t have risen for the day by that time and they will have unimpeded access to the sitting room and its contents. Convinced of his own mastery of how Adler, as a woman, will think, he volunteers this plan to Watson openly in the street, just as Adler walks behind them disguised as a “slim youth in an ulster”32 who even says “Good night, Mister Sherlock Holmes.”33

700 Goodnight Mr Holmes
One assumes that upon over-hearing Holmes’ indiscretion as to voicing his plan, Adler decides to flee the nest and leave her house in the depths of the night, taking the photograph with her to “the Continent.”34 The cause of this chain of events, which Holmes did not compute, is presumably her realisation that she betrayed the hiding place of the photograph. So, she acts according to her own thoughts and behaviour and not Holmes’ thoughts upon the ‘doings of women’.

To give Holmes his credit, though, he realises his error, almost instantaneously, when he reads her letter to him, left in the hiding place, and vocalises this in dialogue to the King, who witnessing the turn of events, proclaims “Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity she was not on my level?”35 To which Holmes replies, “From what I have seen of the lady, she seems, indeed, to be on a very different level to Your Majesty.”36 By which Conan Doyle makes clear that Adler surpasses both the King and Holmes, as Watson concludes the story with a wonderful phrase: “the best plans of Mr Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit.”37

600 Irene_Adler.fw
It is a shame Holmes never speaks to Adler after his newfound respect for her. Possibly, then he would have regarded her with a moral attitude as opposed to a prejudiced one. But then, does Holmes regard anyone with a moral attitude? Certainly, various police inspectors are always given short shrift by him and Watson is only very sparsely accorded something akin to respect for his intelligence. Holmes’ brother Mycroft is, perhaps, the only person whom Holmes gets close to regarding with a moral, as opposed to prejudiced, attitude. In The Bruce-Partington Plans Holmes states of his brother: “He has the tidiest and most orderly brain, with the greatest capacity for storing facts, of any man living.”38 However, with the possible exception of Mycroft, most encounters in Holmes’ life are ones whereby the other person gets reduced to an almost quantifiable set of behaviours which Holmes can identify and understand in such a way that he feels he has a better grasp of the other than they have themselves. The result being, in the majority of the time, that he is right. And yet, even this set of highly thought-out prejudices can come unstuck in their overconfidence and dealing with the Irene Adlers of the world.

Several lessons can be learned here. Holmes seems to learn his in that he clearly understands he has underestimated Adler. Another possible one, that strikes a blow for feminism, is that he shouldn’t have underestimated those he so firmly and collectively prejudiced: women. For me, however, there is one final critical lesson that everyone can take from this early ‘warts ‘n’ all’ Sherlock Holmes tale: no one should underestimate anyone else, because we are all capable of surprising each other and standing beyond those prejudices that would seek to define us.


  1. Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith, Macmillan Press Ltd., London, 1929, 72.
  2. Kuhn, T. S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition, The University of Chicago Press Ltd., London, 113.
  3. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 267.
  4. Ibid., 267.
  5. Ibid., 277
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., 270.
  10. Gadamer, H-G. ‘The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem’ reproduced in Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, 9.
  11. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 295.
  12. Warnke, G. ‘Literature, Law, and Morality’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions. Edited by Bruce Krajewski, University of California Press, London, 2004, 93.
  13. Ibid., 94.
  14. Ibid. Jean Grondin in The Philosophy of Gadamer. Translated by Kathryn Plant, Acumen, 2003, discussed the related problem of cutting ‘ourselves off from the things themselves,’ when attempting to be aware of our prejudices, 85.
  15. Warnke, G. ‘Literature, Law, and Morality’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions. Edited by Bruce Krajewski, University of California Press, London, 2004, 94.
  16. Ibid., 95.
  17. Doyle, A. C. The Sign of Four, included in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels. Edited with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger, W. W. Norton and Company, 2006, 311.
  18. Doyle, A. C. A Study in Scarlet, included in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels. Edited with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger, W. W. Norton and Company, 2006, 34-35,
  19. Ibid., 51.
  20. Ibid., 102.
  21. Ibid., 116.
  22. Ibid., 116-117.
  23. Doyle, A. C. The Sign of Four, included in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels.Edited with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger, W. W. Norton and Company, 2006, 220.
  24. Doyle, A. C. A Scandal in Bohemia, included in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Penguin Books, 1981, 20.
  25. Ibid., 9.
  26. Ibid., 25.
  27. Ibid., 16.
  28. Ibid., 26.
  29. See ibid., 27.
  30. Ibid., 24.
  31. Ibid., 28.
  32. Ibid., 29
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid., 30.
  35. Ibid., 31
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid., 32.
  38. Doyle, A. C. The Bruce Partington Plans, included in His Last Bow, Penguin Popular Classics, 1997, 85.



1. Lucifer and the witches


Why bother trying to be ethical?

It’s February 1969, the Bronx, New York City. A ten-year-old Oldsmobile has had its number plates removed and the bonnet/hood left slightly open to make it look ‘abandoned’. An identical car is similarly ‘abandoned’ in Palo Alto, California. In the course of forty-eight hours the Bronx Oldsmobile suffers no less than twenty-three separate destructive incidents. The Palo Alto car, by comparison, has its hood closed by an elderly gentleman and three neighbours report its theft to the police when it is driven away after two weeks.

Philip Zimbardo, a social psychologist, was responsible for the ‘abandoned’ cars. They were key to a social experiment was conducting. At the end of the experiment, Zimbardo concluded that Palo Alto was inhabited by people who have a good sense of community spirit, faith in the police, and a sense of fairness and trust. All positive social attributes from which he judged Palo Alto to be an environment where ethical behaviour should thrive.

1959 balck and white Oldsmobile

Zimbardo then conducted another social experiment in Palo Alto that would resonate throughout the world and become synonymous with the word evil.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted from 14th – 20th of August 1971. It was supposed to have a longer duration, but it had to be aborted due to the extreme level of behaviour taking place within it.

After a lengthy process of advertising, assessing and screening one hundred candidates, who all volunteered to take part in a paid study of prison life, were whittled down by Zimbardo to twenty-four suitable participants. Most were Stanford University students or students in the area attending summer schools at Stanford or Berkeley, or Palo Alto residents. Zimbardo and his team wanted young men who appeared normal, healthy and psychologically average. They didn’t want usual prison ‘types’ or anyone with obvious social or psychological problems: ‘bad seeds’ were screened out. Essentially, bright, healthy and normal young men studying in a decent area of the country were chosen.

Typical students
Of the twenty-four participants, twelve were assigned to be ‘guards’ by the simple act of tossing a coin to see whether each person would be a ‘guard’ or a ‘prisoner’. The reasoning being that there could be no bias as to choosing who the ‘guards’ would be by Zimbardo and his graduate students assistants. Once the list of ‘guards’ was established, they were all brought in to receive an orientation session. There wasn’t time within the budget to give any training per se, so they were only given two specific instructions: practice no violence against any of the ‘prisoners’ and allow no escapes. Zimbardo also conveyed that he wanted the mock prison to create a sense of powerless in the ‘prisoners’.

The ‘guards’ were then instructed to carry out ‘arrests’ of the other twelve participants as they went about their daily lives in Palo Alto and to make it as authentic as possible, but on a pre-agreed date when the volunteers were told to make themselves available for the experiment they had signed up to. So, with the ‘guards’ complete in their uniforms, purchased at the local Army surplus store, the ‘arrests’ took place and each ‘prisoner’ was brought to the specially converted basement at Stanford’s Psychology department, which was to function as the jail. One of the key components of the ‘guards’ uniform was the then popular police custom of wearing mirrored sunglasses, which prevents anyone from seeing their eyes. Zimbardo saw these reflective glasses as part of the process of creating what he termed de-individuation: a social psychological concept whereby the individual losses self-awareness in group situations. In this instance, the ‘guard’ becomes the role they are assigned rather than being themselves, an autonomous human individual with their own personality and behavioural characteristics.

Once the ‘arrests’ were made the jail-time proper could commence. Each ‘prisoner’ was blindfolded and stripped naked in preparation for being sprayed with a delousing powder. From that moment, the ‘guards’ spontaneously started to ridicule the ‘prisoners’. The ‘prisoner’s’ uniforms were then handed out. A smock dress with numbers on the front and back with nylon stocking caps to cover and contain long hair, as a substitute for head shaving, but equally aimed at removing individuality just as the numbers on the uniform would prove to do. No underwear was allowed and chain shackles were permanently attached to the ‘prisoner’s’ legs. At this point, the blindfolds were removed and the ‘prisoners’ paraded in front of full length mirrors so that they could see themselves: the humiliation had begun.

Rules were then read out to the ‘prisoners’ and they were told to address the guards as ‘Mr Correctional Officer’. When laughing and giggling broke out amongst the ‘prisoners’ a new rule was immediately introduced and implemented: no laughing. The rules were worked out by a ‘guard’ participant assigned the more precise role of warden on the day of orientation. There were seventeen rules dealing with silence, number not name use, obeying orders, smoking and mail privileges etc. The final rule, “failure to obey any of the above rules may result in punishment,”1 it should be noted, created a potential contravention of a specific instruction from the orientation day – practice no violence against any of the ‘prisoners’.

During the first evening the ‘guards’ on duty got the ‘prisoners’ to perform a count of their newly assigned numbers going from left to right along the line of twelve. One of the ‘prisoners’ laughed and a ‘guard’ pushed him back against the wall with his ‘billy club’ (truncheon/baton) and angrily shouted “No laughing.”2 The scene then escalated as the ‘guards’ made the ‘prisoners’ perform jumping jacks and/or press-ups if they deemed a ‘prisoner’ to count off their number incorrectly.

In the middle of night, at 2.30am, the new shift of ‘guards’ woke the ‘prisoners’ with loud shrieking whistles to perform the count, in what swiftly became a control ritual to be implemented at any time. The next day, one of the ‘guards’ started pushing the shoulders back of those ‘prisoners’ he thought were not standing straight enough. When questioned at the end of the experiment, this ‘guard’ stated that the reflective glasses made him feel safely authoritative.

In the course of the first twenty-four hours the ‘prisoners’, in little conclaves, started expressing anger to each other at how they were being treated and began to hatch plans to frustrate the ‘guards’. Clearly, resentment was brewing and simmering on their side, just as some of the ‘guards’ were finding new ways to have ‘fun’.

A flash point quickly erupted, on the second day, when one ‘prisoner’ had his bedclothes thrown onto the floor by a ‘guard’ who said that his bed was a mess. The ‘prisoner,’ screaming, lunged at the ‘guard’. The ‘guard’ pushed the ‘prisoner’ off and whilst punching him in the chest called for reinforcements due to the ‘emergency’ in Cell 2. When the other ‘guards’ arrived they roughly caught the ‘prisoner’ and threw him into a smaller cell with another reprimanded ‘prisoner’. As the result of another perceived infraction, in different cell, the ‘guards’ took the sheets and blankets from the occupants and dragged them outside through dirt and hedges to cover them in thorns and other detritus.


Slightly later, during that second day, some of the ‘prisoners’ decided to barricade themselves into their cell by turning their beds up against the door, they also called out to the other cells to do the same. To overcome this tactic, one of the ‘guards’ armed with a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher aimed and released it at the offending ‘prisoners’ so that the ‘guards’ could force their way into the barricaded cell. One of the ‘prisoners’ who refused to come out was handcuffed round his ankles, after being thrown to the ground, and then dragged by feet out into the yard. Food is then withheld from the ‘prisoners’ at lunchtime and later that day the nightshift ‘guards’ are asked to come in early to help the dayshift storm one of the cells, remove the beds, strip the ‘prisoners’ naked and threaten to withhold the evening meal as well.

By the fourth day the ‘guards’ were well into their routine of punishment.  As one of them dished out the now standard slow press-ups to one of the ‘prisoners’ he even went so far as to put his foot in-between the ‘prisoner’s’ shoulder blades and stepped hard on the down cycle of the press-up. In his write-up of the experiment, Zimbardo noted he had seen drawings of the guards at Auschwitz doing exactly the same thing.

The Stanford Prison Experiment continued for another two days in similar vein with humiliation, deprivation of food and sleep, and physical punishments becoming the norm, before Zimbardo and his colleagues drew everything to a close. The final image for us to dwell upon is four well behaved prisoners taken to their ‘parole hearing’. Shackled at their feet, in a line, they had bags placed over their heads, just to complete the dehumanising process.

Zimbardo debriefed each participant thoroughly and obviously analysed intently the findings of the experiment, just as Stanley Milgram did with his electric shock experiments. Drawing most of his conclusions from a social psychology point of view, Zimbardo did also allow himself a human perspective:

“In just a few days and nights the virtual paradise that is Palo Alto, California, Stanford University became a hellhole. Healthy young men developed pathological symptoms that reflected the extreme stress, frustration, and hopelessness they were experiencing as prisoners. Their counterparts, randomly assigned to the role of guards, repeatedly crossed the line from frivolously playing that role to seriously abusing ‘their prisoners’.”3

To some, it might be obvious, but let’s lay it out. The Stanford Prison Experiment marks a post-holocaust moment in time where unthinkable acts of dehumanisation were let loose, almost within a few short hours, by people one would think were perfectly decent human beings. Zimbardo, after a long period of reflection, described the ‘system’ that he and his assistants imposed, as the trigger or catalyst that enabled ‘good’ people to perform ‘evil’ acts. While this is a perfectly valid conclusion I would like to focus upon a different aspect to what he witnessed.

One of the crucial elements in the Stanford Prison Experiment was the way that the ‘prisoners’ had their individuality, and thereby humanity, removed piece by piece to cause a complete breach of ethical behaviour. Replacing their names with numbers is an obvious example of this process of dehumanisation. However, even the wearing of mirrored sunglasses by the ‘guards’, which prevented eye contact between two individuals, is also such a breach, because if we don’t look into the other’s eyes and allow them to look into ours then one or other of us starts to be objectified and treated in a manner normally reserved for engaging with things, not humans. Withholding food and physically causing the other person violence doesn’t need explaining in conjunction with the loss of ethics. If we take them at their easily identifiable prima facie value, they are just brutal behavioural traits and not within anyone’s scope of ethics. The question to ask, then, is how did those behavioural traits come into being in the first place, when Zimbardo especially tried to screen out individuals with unethical/anti-social tendencies?

Zimbardo described the ‘system’ as that which caused ‘evil’ to surface. However, it is in the elements that make up the ‘system’ where we can see signs of what is important to ethical behaviour.

  • Genuine eye contact between individuals.
  • Respect for the other as a human being.
  • Allowing the other person to show their individuality and be different.

Giving genuine eye conduct, respect, and not casting others in our own image, however, is not easy. But understanding such requirements is a step forward, is it not? Or, do we want to find ourselves, possibly only metaphorically, with our foot between someone else’s shoulder blades because we have lost touch with what it means to be ethical?  We’re decent ‘normal’ people, right? Just like those Zimbardo recruited and selected into his little prison experiment…

Balck and White 700

In the summer of 1692, an extraordinary sequence of events led to twenty people being executed for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Another four to thirteen, the records are unclear, died in prison before their execution date for the same ‘crime’.


Arthur Miller, after considerable research, wrote The Crucible as a dramatic reconstruction of these appalling events. Debate still rages as to the strict historic accuracy, but that was never his goal. His intent was to capture and deliver what he described as the “essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history.”4 Courtesy of his playwright’s gift for giving authentic voices to these lost individuals and those that condemned them, The Crucible, since its outset in 1953, has been regarded as a modern classic of literature. The tale of accusations fuelled by mistrust and religious dogma, but most of all the system induced need for self-preservation, is one that still haunts and shocks more than sixty years on. Written as an allegory for McCarthyism, prevalent at the time in the United States, Miller hit upon the perfect vehicle to warn his society of Senator Joe’s dangerous practice of making unfair accusations which turn into prejudiced allegations. McCarthy combined these with improper investigative techniques that led, ultimately, to ‘Kangaroo Court’ styled hearings, which in turn ruined reputations, ostracized, made unemployable, or imprisoned thousands of innocent people. Homosexuals, Hollywood celebrities and state department officials were among those targeted by the ‘Un-American Activities Committee’, as were swathes of the armed forces such as the three thousand sailors who lost their jobs with the Coast Guard at the start of the Korean War after a ‘review’ was carried out.


Miller’s play, although a social comment on contemporary politics, preserved strict artistic integrity in its subject matter and never overtly poked its head out from behind the stage curtain with a knowing wink, except once in a strangely developed narrative interlude two-thirds of the way through Act One. Almost concealed, in the middle of Reverend Hale’s introduction, Miller shows his colours and states “in America any man who is not reactionary in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the Red hell.”5 It’s little wonder that in 1956 Miller himself started to be investigated by the Un-American Activities Committee.

The plot of The Crucible hinges upon a group of girls, aged eleven to seventeen, caught dancing in the woods with Reverend Parris’ slave-girl, Tituba, whom he brought back with him from Barbados. The problem being that Tituba was seen to be waving her arms over an open fire, possibly incanting and some of the girls were naked as they danced. From the moment of their discovery a spiral of accusation, suspicion, revenge, land-grabbing and a battle between principles and self-preservation emerges. The religious powers that be, instead of calming the situation, drove the whole community into the now infamous Catch-22 situation: confess to witchcraft or be executed. In their eyes, of course, this meant being damned to an eternity in hell after, presumably, being driven from their home as a witch, or instant death. Not a great choice and one that shows the pernicious power of an accusation.

Salem Witchtrials
Throughout the play, Miller presents the tragic drama though the voices and actions of different characters. In particular, we see John Proctor struggle at the beginning with his inner turmoil, the adultery he committed with his ex-servant Abigail Williams, one of the girls, whom Miller deftly presents as a viciously manipulative and self-interested ringleader. Proctor’s strife continues because, having confessed his sin to his wife, Elizabeth, and wanting to deal with the matter as a personal issue between the two of them, the twist of events forces him to make his adultery public in order to save his wife who was accused of witchcraft by the spurned and vengeful Abigail. Ignorant of her husband’s testament, Elizabeth Proctor is brought into Deputy Governor Danforth’s court to corroborate John’s claim as to what motive lies behind Abigail’s accusations. The proof being that she too must publicly announce her family’s shame and state that John committed adultery with Abigail, whom he now holds nothing but contempt for. Elizabeth is unwittingly reluctant to declare the real cause of Abigail’s dismissal as their servant and is consequently led from the court to prison. As the door closes behind her, John shouts “She only thought to save my name!”6 The spiral unravels further for John, who has just seen his wife effectively imprisoned for witchcraft, because Abigail now initiates a phase of events that seals his fate as well.

Affecting sighting of a ‘spirit’ bird sent from Mary Warren, the Proctor’s new servant and whom John convinced to tell the truth in court about the girls lying, Abigail starts to communicate with the ‘spirit’ and become entranced by it. The result being that the other girls in the court join in the affected entrancing and turn upon Mary Warren who then breaks down and performs an about-face on Proctor shouting and pointing “You’re the Devil’s man!”7 Danforth, caught up in whirlwind of events, crystallises Proctor’s fate, in the only way he knows how, by asking him to confess his association with the Devil or become imprisoned.

Spirit Bird
After three months in jail, Proctor is allowed to see his wife Elizabeth, and in saying that he wants to live is resigned to accept the consequences of this coerced admission. His forced confession, of knowing the Devil, is verbally obtained as a very terse and begrudging statement: “I did.”8 However, this is not enough for Danforth because he wants Proctor to sign a statement to the same effect. Proctor unwillingly does so but then rips it up when he finds out that Danforth wants to display this statement, the spoils, upon the church door for all to see. With this gesture Proctor seals his doom, so that rather than blackening his name and those of his family he is hanged.

Miller draws the atrocity further out when he considers Proctor’s friend, the eighty-two year old Giles Corey, whose fate is tied up with that of Thomas Putnam, the wealthiest man in the village. When Corey recounts an earlier day at court when Putnam’s daughter cried out that a friend of Corey’s was a wizard, who was then duly imprisoned, the issue of land-grabbing comes to the fore. As Corey explains, if someone were to be hanged as a wizard, then his property would be forfeited, his family made homeless, and his land sold to the highest bidder, which in this case would be Putnam. Consequently, Corey accuses Putnam of putting his daughter up to crying out witchery in the court in order to swoop in and buy the land. Corey’s problem, however, is that Danforth wants proof that Putnam has manufactured such a scheme with his daughter. Corey presents verbal testimony. He acquired it from “an honest man who heard Putnam say it!”9 Without the name of this honest man, Danforth refuses to accept its validity and Corey refuses to give up the name for fear that Danforth will imprison the man, especially after Corey’s own wife was imprisoned because he stated that she reads unknown books and hides them. As Corey saw it he had made the mistake of once naming names and he wasn’t about to commit the same error. Deputy Governor Danforth then holds Corey in contempt of court and has him imprisoned.

Later on, when asked to say “aye” or “nay” to his indictment, Corey protects his family’s property by saying nothing. (One is left to assume whether the murder accusation he levied at Putnam was primary or secondary to his being associated with Proctor and his ‘knowledge’ of the Devil). By remaining mute, Corey effectively chooses not to choose (to be hanged as a wizard or confess his knowledge of the Devil). Either way he sees the danger of his land becoming forfeited and his family robbed of their livelihood. Danforth, not to be frustrated or outwitted by such a loop-hole decides to invent a third option for those who remain mute when asked to confess their knowledge of the Devil, and has Corey pressed beneath heavy stones until he says “aye” or “nay”. Corey’s only words, however, are “more weight”10 and then he expires.

Giles Corey

By crafting his play so tightly as to highlight the power of false accusations and the danger of suspicions, Miller shone a light on one of “the most awful chapters in human history” and also provided a warning flare as regards McCarthyism. However, his own critical analysis demonstrated that there is a broader brush to be applied when viewing events politically. Miller saw that in such climates, political opposition starts to take on an ‘inhumane overlay’ which for the dominant power justifies the rejection of all normal modes of civilized discourse:

“A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence. Once such an equation is effectively made, society becomes a congerie of plots and counterplots, and the main role of government changes from that of the arbiter to that of the scourge of God.”11

The analysis applied here fits so perfectly with the events in Salem in 1692, and in the United States in the early 1950s, but doesn’t it also resonate with George W. Bush’s foreign policy after 9/11, encapsulated in his 20th September 2001 TV address? “Our ‘war on terror’ begins with Al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”12 The scourge of God, it seems is waiting, lurking, and ready to be roused at a moment’s notice, whereby the actions of the few provide excuse for Governments to mobilise their battalions of enforcers.

The Scourge of God
The problem here, however, is that when a situation starts, panic and ethical blindness take hold and spread like wildfire amid what were robust and healthy communities. At best, anxious individuals became ultra-wary of each other and at worst start finger pointing at their neighbours before their greatest fear comes home to roost and they get pointed at themselves. The grip of suspicion infects and runs rampant like a plague, especially when fuelled by those in authority. Malicious behaviour towards the guy who lives three doors down becomes justified with ‘moral right’, as Miller understood, and is in fact the polar opposite of morality. Being buoyed up with ‘right on one’s side’ is rarely, if ever, an ethical place to be, especially when concentrated in a pressure cooker environment created by Governments which seek to quash any non-believers and flex their muscles to demonstrate their power. Suspicions lead to snide comments, allegations and accusations before anyone has realised that their autonomy has been hijacked by a pernicious political plot designed ostensibly to protect, when in reality it actually manufactures fear, anxiety and hatred. This is the great evil which comes from on high and which seeks to eviscerate our delicate ethical leanings when we are least prepared. The task for each of us, of course, is to do all in our power to prevent ourselves from becoming puppets and drones for someone else’s power play that really doesn’t care about the individual level.

Consequently, when the urge comes to be suspicious of our neighbour, or the person fleeing persecution in their own country, we should resist and stay true to more ethically minded principles that uphold our humanity through small but vital acts of respect and kindness. Hopefully, then human dignity will not be pushed face down in the mud and maybe, just maybe, we might suffer better fates than John Proctor and Giles Corey when holding onto such principles.

If we all do one act
The outcome is far from certain, but by now the risk of dismissing ethics should be clear, in that there are many and varied potential adverse effects for the individual and humanity in general if one continues blindly not bothering to familiarise oneself with what ethical behaviour is. So, let us now get acquainted by beginning the task proper…


  1. Zimbardo, P. The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, London: Rider, 2009, 45.
  2. Ibid., 49.
  3. Ibid., 444.
  4. Miller, A. The Crucible, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, 11.
  5. Ibid., 38.
  6. Ibid., 100.
  7. Ibid., 104.
  8. Ibid., 121.
  9. Ibid., 87.
  10. Ibid., 118.
  11. Ibid., 38.
  12. Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, The White House Archives, 2001, [viewed 9th April 2017]. Available from: https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html



It’s time for a change.
It’s time for us to realise what we mean to each other.

I want to conjure and draw attention to a thirst that needs to be quenched because there is a positive drought sweeping over us, which threatens to create a bleak, desolate and fearful existence. We are blindly falling into oblivion and with each passing day there appears to be no arrest to our descent. News item after news item generates shudders and terrors as we stare fixedly into the stream of chaos, distress and horror with which we are presented.

Migration, violence, war and terrorism are eclipsing famine, disease and natural disaster. There is an increasing miasma of danger being felt to emanate from the actions of other humans. This is beginning to suppress our perspective upon the natural predators of human life. The battle with nature and struggle for life has been given over, wholesale, to scientific saviours to fight the good fight. Meanwhile, we ‘unscientific ones’ are left to focus our worries upon each other and fantasize about the threat that our neighbour poses as he apparently hides behind closed doors manufacturing pipe bombs and stockpiling illegal weapons.


As we plough ever onwards through ceaseless days of torment at the mercy of omnipresent global communications, we harden day by day to the passage of our fellow citizens as they too go about their lives. The walls within which we call our homes start to take root in our minds, slowly setting down psychological mortar and brick to keep nightmare possibilities at bay. Where once there exalted innocent and open minds, embracing life’s continual excitement in the spirit of exploration, desolate wastelands of fear and deserts of paranoia spread, choking our reasoning and intellect. “Better to be safe than sorry” we expound as we shut and bolt the front door closing ourselves off from each other. In a single generation we have slain the freedom and joy we had as children playing with each other in the street and handed down to our offspring the padded playgrounds that technology can provide in the security and safety of our own home.


Fear of deviance has caught hold of our imagination and constructed a “no-brainer” decision to keep our kids from potential harm. We understand our actions to be those steered by personal choice when we escort our young ones to the playground as opposed to unleashing them down the road. But are they personal? Or, are they swiftly becoming conventional? When does the act of the one become the act of conformity, and not personal at all? Or, do we acknowledge our ovine proclivity and put it down to “common sense in this day and age”? Hopefully, there are a few good souls out there that rally and rage against this unwritten curfew, even if they might begrudgingly adopt it. Further, though, spreads the desert…

The achievements of the 20th century that took so many great strides to overcome inhumanity are slowly showing signs of erosion. The abolition, by so many, of capital punishment is in great danger if one believes and becomes persuaded by glibly erected ‘debating’ polls. The simple button click, if enough people press it, can become a powerful and corrosive political tool, if initiated by the wrong hands. Can it be that we live in a culture that can excavate and smash one of the foundations of a mature society by naively swaying the populace with fear? The focus of fear shifts, seemingly year on year, with the latest incarnations being migrants and refugees. The largest culture-shock in more recent times, however, relates to that post 9/11 iconographic term coined by George W. Bush, ‘terrorists’, with the question being whether or not terrorists should get the death penalty.

e - alt3

Can it be that we are so ready to go backwards on this issue and if so what next? Are our human rights to be knee-jerked into question by other online polls after being fought for by legions of academics, politicians and believers in the post holocaust world of the 1940s? Should we rescind a few of the Articles of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights1, such as 13 (2) (“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”) and 14 (1) (“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”) because they are becoming inconvenient? Let’s have an online poll right now to make the decision and present the case afresh in true tabloid sensation style. Or, rather, let’s not unpick the fabric of one of the truly remarkable successes that our evolved hairless simian species has managed to achieve!


The fostering and nurturing of fear, suspicion and hate is the problem and it needs to be opposed because it alone is causing the drought. Left unchecked, it will cripple humanity through war and convince individuals to self-impose barriers to community that will escalate the loneliness and depression that swarms exponentially among us. The rains to eradicate the draught can come though… if we want them to. The question is, of course, do we want them to come? However, before we start jumping up and randomly performing rain-dances we really ought to find out just what the rain is made from.

Maybe we can start our precipitation analysis by looking at fear, suspicion and hate and also their opposites, calm, trust and love. The most noticeable difference between these two sets of emotions and feelings is that those in the ‘positive camp’, (calm, trust and love) appear to need some focused work from us as individuals. They don’t just happen. They normally take time to develop and to take shape within us. However, those in the ‘negative camp’ (fear, suspicion and hate) are now rushing fully formed into our minds and emotions at speed; and this is a major problem because we aren’t taking any time to process before spewing forth ‘gut’ reactions and creating stories in our heads regarding personal safety for ourselves and our loved ones.


So why is it that suspicion comes on much quicker in our consciousness than trust? It used to be the case that these antonyms followed a similar path of progression within our minds. One would experience the presence of another person, weigh up the information gathered from their actions and conversation, then make an assessment as to whether we would like, admire or trust them. The process, though, would take time and be one that we would continually check within ourselves when new information was received. It was rare that we would have an immediate opinion or follow the recommendation of a friend unchecked. However, that was when we lived in a simpler environment where interaction with others, and more importantly the thought of others, was an easily identifiable event in our daily lives. If the Postman speculated on the newcomer in the village as he handed over our letters we would mark this as an, albeit minor, event in our day. Can we say the same today? Plus, we would consider what the Postman said and weigh it up in our thoughts only if we trusted their opinion. Rather vitally, we gave space to the information received and also our processing of it. By doing so, of course, we gave the same degree of attention to discovering if we could trust the Postman or be suspicious of him. This is rarely the case these days.


There is an enormous plurality to the quantity of events that we allow ourselves to be exposed to that shows no signs of slackening off in our present age. The consequence being that we are training our minds to shortcut the information and processing time we give to each new interaction that bubbles to the surface of our frontal lobe. Such speed of grappling aids decision making when in environments where pace is the key criteria to judge our engagement with a given topic. However, perniciousness creeps in when this rapid skill set is applied to issues that deserve superior thinking to those that deserve instantaneous or swift classification. For example, relationships to other humans are issues where we should not scrimp mental energies.

The ability to apply ourselves to questions of other human beings is under malevolent pressure because it is swept along with the flood of information we are coerced/desirous to process regarding the general world around us. From protecting the password to our latest online subscription, to absorbing the latest extra-circular school activity offered to our children, to hundreds of face to face and email dialogues we have at work, to glancing at the newspaper headline opposite us on the commute declaring the latest atrocity and outrage as given over by people trying to sell their papers. We are digesting at a phenomenal rate. Reading, listening, processing, choosing, deciding and concluding. We are thinking at speed throughout most of our lives. When a new piece of information is presented to us, we have to hustle our assimilations in order to be ready for the next conveyor belt item that has to be consumed. At work this facility undoubtedly makes us more employable because we are seen to be capable and quick-witted. The same is not true though if we apply this method when assessing our fellow self-conscious, bipedal and weary mortal coil inhabitants.


The mutually supporting system of information barrage and our short-cut processing is a pandemic threatening to infect and poison all of us under their widespread scorching plague that destroys our abilities to genuinely consider and reflect upon each other and see beyond the all too easily at-hand fear, hate and suspicion. The inoculation needs to be given out. It is time for us to shake off the sleeping sickness that we have allowed to run rampant through our mental processes. Enough short cutting, enough mis-judgement, enough categorisation and enough sloppiness of thinking. It’s too bloody dangerous. We need to wake up and realise where we are and just what we are capable of if we continue to use our auto-pilot when we should be absolutely focused, in control and able to function at our best intellectually – when thinking about each other. Fear, hate and suspicion must be overcome by a different category of thinking than we normally apply. We have to think deeper, we have to think longer and we have to think wider. We owe it to ourselves not to think simplistically and we owe it to each other after five thousand known years of war, torture and mayhem.


It’s time for a change and it’s time for us to realise what we mean to each other even if at first we don’t understand each other and can’t see why we each believe or do the things we do. The lessons learned in the twentieth century and the results achieved subsequently by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have shown us the danger that lurks in each of us and also the good that we can collectively attain, striving for global civilization. We must not go backwards. We must continue to strive. We must also realise the risks we face every day by lazy thinking that seeks to reduce questions of other people to problems that must be overcome. Each of us deserves consideration, thought and understanding. Each of us deserves to be treated ethically. Thinking first will help us. Thinking first will enable us to become better humans and we have to rise to this challenge. This won’t be easy. We will slip, trip and fall on many occasions. However, perhaps a start can be made in the right direction if we realise the danger posed by fear, hate and suspicion and start to drag ourselves away from the brink by developing a new thirst, an ethical thirst.

l - alt

Let us be clear, though. That we might think we should only choose between deontology, utilitarianism or virtue ethics is a masterful coup on behalf of stagnant philosophies. Each time we engage with such thinking we are evading the issue that is most pressing and purely conducting a solipsistic ritual that has no real influence upon our ethical bearing. To debate which theory we should adopt at any given point is to miss the point of ethics. Ethics is about allowing the humanity of the other person to have impact upon us. Rather than ignoring them as we devote ourselves to internal cogitations. Ethics is at work when we get stopped in our stride by the mere existence of the other person as we walk up and allow them to be themselves rather than an object to be persuaded, policed or preened over. Ethics is about how we are with other people, not how we think about ethics.

700 wide two green men.fw

Debating and cogitating as to how we might act if we stumble across an ethical problem that falls neatly into discussions of moral theory is not what I mean by ethics. Thinking about the greater good, our duty or trying to be virtuous is to pontificate irrelevantly. Concepts of duty and virtue vary with cultural changes in geography and the governing premise that we should act to promote the most good is, to be frank, not good enough. Instead of coolly assessing the merits of each of these analytic traditions we shall cast them aside and leave them to the province of teaching aids for burgeoning philosophy students trying out their newly learned debating skills. The ethics we need operates at a different strata. We don’t need theories and flow charts that prescribe, we need an ethics that impacts upon us at an individual level.

When you and I collide in the street, even as strangers, something unique and wonderful occurs. In that moment of eye-to-eye contact, there comes into being a recognition that, whilst completely original and exclusive, is repeated an infinite number of times everyday. That instance, the recognition of another, is played out daily in every bar, school, factory, and pavement across the planet wherever someone catches the eye of another person. It is so omnipresent that we take it completely for granted and rarely, if never, think about its presence.

700 wide faces

The merest glimpse of another’s face that elevates to eye contact can take place in a clichéd ‘split-second’. This literal, melodramatic, and overused phrase both describes and foregrounds the element of time in the transaction, just as it brashly swamps what it should only really describe. That said, its place within our thinking on this subject is reasonably deserved because we only need such a small amount of time to comprehend that we are in the presence of another: there is no incremental scale based on chronology that necessitates longevity in order to reach a threshold of recognition. Recognition, therefore, not being dependent on time, is presumably something other dependent. What is it to recognise someone as a person? What criteria are instantly met and passed through? Is eye contact the thing that is required? Whatever the mystical threshold actually is I’m not concerned. My interest lies in is what happens as that threshold is crossed.

In that moment of recognition a realisation occurs – we are met by another person, another person who is equal to us. The other person is not a ‘lower’ or different life form, such as a horse or a dolphin. They are on the same level as us. So much so, that the resonance of recognition is palpable every time it happens. We might take our encounters for granted, but the force of them is always there to arrest our journey even if for a ‘spilt second’. One way to avoid such palpable resonating, connection, and interaction is to ignore other people as we go about our daily lives. Avoiding eye contact in the doctor’s waiting room, never looking into the windscreen or side windows of fellow car travellers. Glossing across people walking down the street next to you, can defuse, obstruct, or remove the timbre and tone of humanity, if so desired. The problem with this, of course, is that some people don’t want you to avoid them, they seduce you in one form or another to encounter them. Or, occasionally you have to engage with other people because you need to make some kind of transaction, a purchase or a request. Placing avoidance to one side for the time being though, as a problem for those with mental health issues or a hobby for miscreants, the more vital topic for attention and reflection can come back into focus: the moment of recognition itself.


When one recognises a stone, tree, or animal in the course of one’s daily monotony there is no palpable resonance. There is, conceivably, a sense of minor achievement, similar to getting a question right in a test, if the object in question vexed us momentarily as to its correct identity. There is really nothing more to be gained, in the arena of recognition, from such an encounter. The hurtling vehicle that is our lifelong journey pauses not or even slows down; it carries on with the same velocity and in the same direction as if the object had never existed to us. From the moment we wake until the moment we rest, we drive ourselves along the same canyons, runways, and country paths that we always have. There is a constant inevitability to these everyday journeys. Our patterns are fairly, no virtually, predictable even though they are also unique. Anyone studying us would, after a fashion, become bored with the repetition of our thoughts, desires, and time absorbing activities. The phrase ‘creature of habit’ hovers over every one of us, threatening to solidify and render us frozen, lifeless. The cure and redeeming elements, that prevent such a chill wind from capturing us, are those brief, all too rare, moments when we allow ourselves to become arrested, derailed, or slowed down by something that we either find interesting or which is powerful enough to cast warmth across our mundane lives. Occasionally both these attributes are necessary. Unfortunately stones, trees and animals rarely muster a rise in temperature. That, which does, is the moment of recognition.

The intervention of another human into our lives always carries heat. For a lot of people, the consequent movement in mercury is rarely, or never, enough to affect any impact. For others, the heat is too much and it burns, forcing them to take avoidance measures. For most though, the icy chill of one’s journey into a fore-drawn destiny is too powerful and will only be susceptible to melting once or twice after the initial openness and innocence of youth has passed. Near frozen lives become governed by rules of thought and strict access control measures that limit the ascension of new ideas, so much so that some travel as if they were the sole inhabitant of the planet at times. So locked into their own thoughts and ways of viewing the world they become guilty of succumbing to that most alluring state of mind and action: solipsism. To actually listen, or allow someone else’s point of view to be considered, appears sometimes as the hardest challenge when in this mode: as if a hairdryer is used to melt a glacier. The seduction of solipsism is quite simple in its basest form, because it translates one’s personal ideas to the perfect form of how ‘things’ should be. There is no need to consider anyone else’s voice when our own is right, is there? Hence, we become solo and build monuments to our selves; carefully securing the foundations, erecting the superstructure, and then finally crafting the surface edifice to ensure its unique and perfect homage is unmistakeable. Such a careful, time consuming project, once complete, does not bare criticism well. After all, a vast amount of energy has gone into making the crowning glory of our lives: our granite-like selves. Once built, such a monument is rarely torn down by its maker, instead it is usually made more weather-proof so as to protect it from unwanted gusts and sheets of rain. Despite such strong-arm preventative measures, the real threat to any creation in this vein is the warm front that others might bring. One moment of recognition could either start a melt or set up a resonant vibration that shakes the structure so violently as to snap the supporting elements, whose inherent brittle nature is always subject to potential failure in extreme conditions.

700 Easter Island Head

The capacity of the moment of recognition is a force able to induce a tremendously powerful set of personal events when unleashed. The exact mechanism of this release, as indicated before, is not of interest to me. Instead, what is of interest is the realisation that it is present and that it has such power. Much of Western philosophy has occupied itself with the logical problem of intersubjectivity, or how to prove that other people exist. The starting point for this problem being Descartes’ cogito (I think therefore I am), which tantalisingly appeared as a rather good re-starting place for much philosophical thought. The only issue I have with it, is that the acknowledged neatness, simplicity, and overall startling self-evidence of the cogito never allowed for any realistic extrapolation to other people. In a world of only one person it summarises the proof of existence brilliantly. In a world of more than one it proves to be quite possibly the worst starting place to discuss any other existences. Such a Cartesian dead-end, which has been vainly mined for over four hundred years in the hope of yielding further gems of wisdom, should now be firmly sealed up, given its blue plaque, and consigned to history. Descartes struck the only gold to be found there and no more should his inspiration haunt us when we are in pursuit of discovering what other people might mean to us. It is time to accept that the logical proof of others evades us. The time we have should now focus, not on questions of logic, but rather on the power that encounters with others have upon us.

700 mining

We are undeniably affected by each other, and I for one am no longer interested in those discussions that pontificate the existence of others and demand for the logical possibility that other people may only be in our minds. This has been a fundamental waste of time and energy for generations and it deserves to be surpassed by a more fruitful hope. Be gone, you tormenting bloat fiend that has sapped and tricked our greatest thinkers with your siren song. We see through your chicanery and want to hear tell of the new endeavour that has dared to make itself known from under your colossal weight!

Acerbic I might be, but is that a reason to write me off and continue no further? Maybe my words hurt your thoughts and feelings after years of studying? An apology I can make, but a retraction I cannot. Therefore, I am sorry if you feel I have treated your subject unjustly, but I will not recant the sentiment that drove me to write my words. Like you, I am passionate about my subject and again, like you, I want to seek out wisdom, but dare I say, that unlike you, I will no longer become embroiled in futile discussions concerning whether or not other people actually exist, because finally, and I stake my claim here, I believe that it is morally wrong to dither anymore on this issue. Our lives are governed by the brutal day-to-day fact that other people are real and separate entities from us. They are not thoughts, electrical impulses, or otherwise from an evil genius or god-like entity. Instead, they are as real, as boring or as interesting as they appear. They are there. All questions of doubt need to be passed over. Doubt, has long been the unfortunate luxury of a certain branch of Western Philosophy. It now needs to be lead off to pasture to allow for the entry of new blood. This fresh life-supporting liquid, though, shall not be the logical opposite of doubt, for Nietzsche has taught us well. ‘Certainty’ is no replacement at all, but merely a continuation of the same dialogue. Instead, the new blood shall be ethics; a subject that will release us from the shackles of oppositional thinking and logical dead-ends, and that Emmanuel Levinas called ‘first philosophy’.

New Blood

So, perhaps with our Levinasian clue delicately placed, we can now start to see that the scope of ethics involved, when trying to grapple with the problem of how we should treat each other, is too wide for traditional moral theories to carve a way through. They just aren’t equipped to deal with such a complex issue. The questions looming over and running through the issue are many and varied and refuse to conform to a flow chart model of if “yes” then proceed to ‘A’ and if “no” go to ‘B’. There isn’t any linearity to the matter. Instead there is, at times, overwhelming context in the fields of history, justice, law and human rights, which surrounds our journey towards civilisation. Such context and complexity, therefore, needs new tools. However, just because you have the right tools in your tool kit, it doesn’t necessarily follow that anything you create will be perfect, useful, or even able to function properly. Success is only to be found in how the tools are wielded…


That said, my tools shall be those of philosophy and culture.

In order to attempt to understand how we might better treat each other there are non-linear models of thinking in the works of Han-Georg Gadamer, Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Paul Sartre. However, these philosophers, it might be fair to say, have received little attention due to their style of writing, which can be somewhat challenging. The solution, which follows, will be the presentation of one philosophical idea at a time with an immediately paired example of that idea from art, film, literature, music, or even, on occasion, psychology. The broad term ‘culture’, which presents these paired examples, will also be enhanced by the balanced use of visual references to further assist understanding. Hence, each chapter will present its philosophical idea and cultural counterpoint amid a flurry of images chosen to convey meaning, illustration or pure example. One upon one, the chapters will flow to enable a whole and complete picture to emerge of the philosophical position contained within, with both visual and cultural accompaniment. However, as well as being a guide to personal ethics, After You, Jackson is also a series of focussed demonstrations on the importance of culture. By virtue of providing philosophical example, the cultural elements become cast as philosophical and display their ethical credentials.

Culture illuminates ethics…

Whilst ethics helps determine our perception of culture.


  1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, [viewed on 26th January 2018]. Available from: http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html

52. And it Got to Come Out


“Let that boy boogie-woogie because it’s in him
and it got to come out.”1
John Lee Hooker

This will be the last post in this series…

About thirty years ago I heard a rumour that John Lee Hooker played along to the amplified sound of his own heartbeat. At the time and still to this day this rumour captures my imagination. To be so in tune with one’s music that your heart beats in perfect time, whilst you play the guitar and sing, wow! Maybe, just maybe, it’s true, although I haven’t ever found any kind of mention, let alone proof, of this legendary event taking place. Whether it’s true or not, is in some ways beside the point because the fact of the matter is that one could believe such a thing of John Lee Hooker due to his immense musical integrity and depth of feeling. There are many thousands of other musicians where such an improbable rumour would never even stand a chance of sticking. When he played, people listened. The hypnotic groove that he was able to conjure out of thin air held everyone spellbound as if it welled up and was released from his very core. There is something very physical and yet entrancing about blues he played.

John Lee Hooker 1.fw

The ideas that Nietzsche stirred regarding becoming and exemplars, in the last post, could find their cultural incarnation in many individuals. In music one could easily look to Frederick Hibbert, better known as Toots (and the Maytals), Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie to name a few, if the criteria were musical achievement and genre defining hero/heroine status. There is a difference between them and John Lee Hooker, however. Yes, he achieved the same level of musical impact as the others and was undoubtedly in their league, but he did something more. John Lee Hooker, at all times, was his own person with a distinct style that remained instantly recognisable as he explored the full spectrum of darkly distilled acoustic country blues right through to the rocked up boogies with Canned Heat. And, it’s in this constancy, with its unique style of vocal delivery and guitar playing, that we find Hooker the artist. He had honed his craft to the point of mastery. In any given situation he was always John Lee Hooker the musician, but also John Lee Hooker the person. The two were inseparable. Unlike so many who find their voice and have to stay within the bounds of a limited number of songs, always performed identically, Hooker’s style was not two-dimensional, he could adapt, evolve, go with the flow and create the flow. This meant that at every required time, John Lee Hooker the musician would perform, but also John Lee Hooker the person was present to enjoy and push the uniqueness of that occasion. And, by being present as a real person, rather than just a musical personae acting out the role of performer, he was always, in Nietzsche’s phrase, becoming. And, that my friends, means that John Lee Hooker is also an excellent exemplar. To keep moving, to keep playing, to keep developing, to keep challenging and attempting new ideas whilst retaining one’s inner core is why John Lee Hooker is an exemplary figure because by doing all of that he was always in a state of becoming.

John Lee Hooker becoming.fw

Now, completely ashamedly, I’m going to refer throughout the rest of this post to Charles Shaar Murray’s epic biography of John Lee Hooker, Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, because it gives the best insights available outside of listening directly to the music, which is obviously the ideal thing that one could possibly do. Early on, Murray sets forth a cornerstone of his thinking:

“The story of John Lee Hooker’s life is, essentially, the story of his resistance to any and all attempts to change him, to dilute an intrinsic sense of self which has successfully withstood all pressures, including those of institutionalized racism, family, church and the music business.”2

As Murray swiftly points out, the resistance was essentially passive due to Hooker’s character being “polite, deferential, quiet-spoken and accommodating.”3 Confrontation, aggression or manipulation, were never attitudes adopted by Hooker. He was internally strong enough and sure of himself to leave aside such tactics of engagement. Instead, a policy of self-determination that focused upon his abilities and conduct, rather than casting a steely eye at the behaviour of others, was always his approach. The company of others was always something to be enjoyed and was never regarded as grist to a mill of misanthropy and bitterness. Hooker was life affirming. Negativity, fear, suspicion, anger and regrets were left to others to occupy themselves with. While there was breath in his lungs and movement in his hands, Hooker was going to sing, play and live life to the full.

John Lee Hooker 2

As Murray writes:

“His gift to us is not so much his music – monumental though that music is – but the sensibility that created that music, a sensibility which gives us the ultimate gift: a new way to see ourselves, and to experience ourselves. A new way to understand and, finally, to live with ourselves.”4

Born in 1917, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of ten children to Minnie Hooker and the Reverend William Hooker, John Lee grow up on the family farm, around one hundred acres large. Electricity and the telephone hadn’t arrived and life revolved around, farm, church and school. At church, as the son of a part-time preacher, John Lee had to sing from the age of nine or ten. A guitar entered his life around that time, due to the kindness of Tony Hollins who gave the young John Lee the instrument whilst courting took place of Alice, Hooker’s older sister. The Reverend Hooker took an instant dislike to his son’s guitar and only allowed him to keep it if it were never brought into the family home: “You can’t bring the Devil in this house.”5

Devil Guitar.fw

From that moment, the young John Lee would practise and play his guitar in the woods, even when he was meant to be at school. For him, as Murray records, a choice had to be made between gaining a good education and staying in Mississippi with the prospect of being a farmer or becoming a musician. Illiteracy was chosen and the rest is history. The journey to that history, however, would be a constant affirmation of the choice to be a musician and continual hard work:

“I know I had the music. I know I had the talent. I know I was good. I knew it, but I knew I had to work up to find someone to open that door for me to come in.”6

A few years after getting his guitar, John Lee’s mother left her husband for Will Moore, a local share-cropper and guitar player. Whereas all his siblings chose to stay with their father, John Lee went with his mother, to be with the guitar playing Will Moore. This decision, at fourteen, meant that John Lee was living with a fellow musician who played alongside the blues greats, such as Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, whenever they visited Mississippi. Will Moore gave John Lee two very important gifts, a new guitar and he taught his stepson the boogie. Both were vital, but the latter was defining, as Hooker recounts:

New Guitar.fw

“He is my roots because he is the man that caused me who I am today. I understudied under him, Will Moore. He made me what I am with his style. He give it to me, like you got a piece of bread and I ain’t got none, and he said, “Here’s a piece of my bread.” He gave me a piece of his music. What I’m doin’ today, that’s him.”7

Will Moore was John Lee Hooker’s musical exemplar, he showed him his way of playing the blues, and some fifteen or so years later, in 1948, he gave John Lee his first hit. Boogie Chillen was a colossal statement of intent that defied the traditional arrangement of most blues songs at the time. The eight or twelve bar blues chord progression was shunned for a pared down dedication to pure rhythm, which drives, like my legendary heartbeat rumour, from the start right through until the end. As Murray writes, “Its galvanic, hypnotic boogie groove was pure unreconstructed Will Moore.”8

john-lee-hooker-7 alt.fw

Hooker acknowledged this debt completely:

“I got that from my stepdad… That was his tune, that was his beat. I never thought I would make nothin’ out of it, and he didn’t either. But I come out with it and it just happened.”9

Coming out with that tune after practising and honing his craft for over half his life, by the age of thirty-one, meant that John Lee Hooker knew exactly who he was, what he would sing about and how he would play right at the start of his public career. And, having studied and perfected his sound and style, for longer than most PhDs, before getting their first foot on the career ladder, meant he knew exactly what worked for him. Trials and errors, dead-ends and dry patches would have all been worked through in the preceding fifteen years. Confidence, stability and a solid foundation were all set by the time of that first break-through hit, Boogie Chillen. The next fifty years, in some ways could be said to be a footnote to where Hooker had got to musically by 1948.

Boogie Chillen' Modern 627.fw

Before moving on to discuss the merit or not in my footnote theory, there is a lyrical component to Boogie Chillen, which must be highlighted. The words, as with nearly all Hooker’s songs, are sparse, evocative, non-rhyming and biographical:

“One night I was layin’ down,
I heard mama, papa talkin’.
I heard papa tell mama
‘Let that boy boogie-woogie
Because it’s in him
And it got to come out’.
And I felt so good.
Went on boogyin’ just the same…
Boogie, chillen!”10

Unlike his actual father, who thought about guitar music as the Devil’s music, Hooker’s stepfather is forever inscribed into John Lee Hooker’s canon as being understanding of John Lee’s compulsion to play the boogie: “… it’s in him and it got to come out.” With its beguiling honesty, simplicity and accuracy this little statement, contained within Boogie Chiilen, is obviously how Hooker felt about himself and it is also the immortalised bearer of a debt back to Will Moore, but it is something else, too. It is the announcement, by one who knows, that we all have possibilities inside of us. Possibilities, which if fed, nourished and worked at can ‘come out’ and produce something unique, beautiful and exemplary.

Boogie Chillen.fw

The innocence of John Lee Hooker’s illiteracy and lyrical content is cast into a sharp relief of wisdom that few literate musicians, poets, and writers ever achieve. Maybe, it’s this self-understanding that drove Hooker and gave him the inner strength and confidence to perpetually allow himself the freedom to create anew every time he played any of his songs?

If everything beyond 1948 could be said to be a footnote, as far as John Lee Hooker’s music is concerned, what can never be reduced to such a status is the way he approached making that music. Aside from learning from Will Moore, Hooker cultivated his individual approach to the blues in an irrepressible fashion. Always shunning uniformity or copying others, Hooker walked his own road.

In 1959, Bill Grauer, of the Riverside label in New York, wanted to record Hooker playing an acoustic set of Leadbelly numbers. Hooker, it quickly transpired, had barely heard of Leadbelly, which to some might speak of a lack of respect for musical ‘forefather’, however, it speaks volumes in another direction. Rather than devote himself to studying the life and music of others forerunners, Hooker understood that his strength was not in the musical mimicry and recreation of past heroes, but rather in emulating their attitudes. As we saw in the last post from Nietzsche: “‘One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.”11 Consequently, the Riverside album is John Lee playing acoustic versions of his own songs, not Leadbelly’s.

Riverside Album.fw

Back in 1947 or 1948, depending on which archive or oral history is adhered to, although it really doesn’t matter, John Lee Hooker began recording his first sessions. Bernard Besman had just established his label, Sensation, after the Second World War and was endeavouring to gain commercial success by recording artists and selling records. Before World War II, Besman had been in the music industry, making records, booking bands and was also from a musical family with a decent piano playing ability that paid his college fees. Jazz was Besman’s comfort zone, but keen to reap financial rewards where he could, he started to diversify with urbane blues musicians who rigidly followed the chord progressions of traditional blues arrangements. Hooker’s approach was not like this at all, as Murray notes:

“Hooker’s music, by contrast, played by rules so utterly different from the rhythm-and-blues norm that Besman didn’t recognize them as rules at all.”12

Sometimes ten, sometimes eleven, or even thirteen bar blues were delivered by Hooker depending on how he felt at the moment of playing: an issue, of course, for anyone accompanying him. For Besman this was a problem. Here was a talented musician, but one who refused to play by the rules, in this case the twelve bar blues rules. Hooker didn’t stop there, though, with his particular kind of anarchy.

John Lee's Anarchy alt.fw

Murray continues:

“For Hooker, no ‘song’ was ever actually completed, finished, engraved into marble, rendered definitive. Rather, it was different each time it was performed. Each piece was a platform for improvisation, a loose framework of lyrical and instrumental motifs into which he poured the emotions of the moment. Ask him to perform the same song a year later, a month later, a week later, a night later, an hour later, or even five minutes later, and the piece would have changed sometimes beyond recognition.”13

For Besman this was another problem, but fortunately he trusted the prospect of success and put out Hooker’s songs to the public. For us, though, there is a fantastic lesson. Hooker obviously prioritised the feelings of the song and tapped into the spirit of the tune each time he performed it rather than trotting it out ‘just one more time’. The lesson being, can we ever get ourselves to a pitch of ability and confidence, on any subject that we would like to excel at, to just let go and improvise right there and then? The risks are high, but the rewards equally so. When discussing this further and describing what he sees as Hooker’s shamanic-like qualities, Murray perceptively states:


“Such music creates joy and transcendence for some and unparalleled fear and loathing in others because it’s an utter affront to the basic tenets of Western rationalism: in others, it disengages the body from the mind and the intelligence from the intellect. It stops you thinking, and starts you feeling. It creates an irrational ecstasy.”14

Much can be said in this vein, however, I’m conscious that we need to finish our thoughts and more tightly bind to becoming.

In May 1970, at the age of fifty-three, Hooker teamed up with Canned Heat to deliver “the best”15 album of his early career, Hooker ‘n’ Heat. (The Healer, recorded in 1989 when well into his seventies, was actually the beginning of his financial success). A double album resulted of seventeen songs: six were solos of Hooker’s, a further six were ‘duets’ with Alan Wilson accompanying on a different instrument for each song, and the remaining five brought out the other members of Canned Heat to join with John Lee and Alan.

Hooker and Heat.fw

The album sees Hooker at the pinnacle of his ability and strength, with the Canned Heat crew accompanying to perfection, under the genius hand of Alan Wilson. The songs flow from depth and intensity to unrestrained energetic vitality, that thankfully everyone understood should not be contained within the standard three minute format. The resulting Peavine and Boogie Chillen No. 2 are five and eleven and a half minutes long respectively. In each, the groove is struck and mined with vigor, imagination and dedication. Hooker, with those half his age, delivered something completely unique in his career, but absolutely authentic. Musically, a pinnacle, but personally a testament to an attitude carved out across the whole fifty years of performing and recording that never shirked from giving absolutely everything to the moment and to the music being created in that moment.

A true exemplary figure. Thank you, Mr John Lee Hooker and thank you, dear readers.



  1. John Lee Hooker, Boogie Chillen, Hooker J. L., United Sound Systems, 1948.
  2. Murray, C. S. Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, Canongate, 2011, 21.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 24-25.
  5. Ibid., 37.
  6. Ibid., 40.
  7. Ibid., 45.
  8. Ibid., 46.
  9. Ibid.
  10. John Lee Hooker, Boogie Chillen, Hooker J. L., United Sound Systems, 1948.
  11. Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 136, and reproduced in James Conant, ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 208.
  12. Murray, C. S., Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, Canongate, 2011, 153.
  13. Ibid., 153-154.
  14. Ibid., 473.
  15. Ibid., 488.

51. Becoming


“Becoming who you are
is not something one is ever finished doing.”1

James Conant

It is not with sadness that we should begin this penultimate post, but with unbridled joy because, as we say a fond Adieu to Sartre, we can enthusiastically declare Guten Morgen, with a smile on our faces, to an old friend with whom we shall now converse. Friedrich Nietzsche will provide not just blazing insights and face-slapping provocation, but the perfect flag for us to merrily thrust into the mountain we have climbed since we began our journey, oh, so many moons ago. He will also ensure that we will continue mountaineering because, as we he will soon demonstrate, our travels should never end.


So, let us begin.

All the way through our posts the idea has been to elucidate thinking that can help us to be more ethical and to that task I think, arguably, we can also align Nietzsche, if we begin by looking at his work through the lens of moral perfectionism, as suggested by Thomas Hurka. Although, let me just state that Hurka, in my opinion misunderstands Nietzsche, but we’ll get to that in a bit. For now, let’s see what Thomas has to say. In Perfectionism, Hurka examines the possibility of such a concept and in doing so defines two categories needed to comprehend this theory:

“I use ‘perfectionism’ (or ‘narrow perfectionism’) to refer to a moral theory based on human nature, and ‘broad perfectionism’ for the more inclusive view that values some development of capacities or some achievement of excellence.”2

Hurka then goes on to state more explicitly that “to develop the best or most defensible perfectionism, we need, most fundamentally, the best concept of human nature.”3 Straight away, then, we can see that in order for a theory to be perfectionist it must give an account of human nature and this, I propose, is one of Nietzsche’s aims within On the Genealogy of Morality. In the first chapter of the preface he introduced and closed it’s lament with “We are unknown to ourselves… we are not ‘knowers’ when it comes to ourselves.”4

Unknown to ourselves.fw

This, I take to be the point of departure for Nietzsche, to try and address the issue of ‘self-knowledge, or ‘human nature’, to place it within Hurka’s ‘narrow perfectionist’ framework.

However, in order to verify my claim for a pursuit of human nature within On the Genealogy of Morality, we must examine its methodology. Nietzsche quite clearly was not trying to trace human nature back to a starting point in a Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau. Michel Foucault confirms this in his examination of On the Genealogy of Morality, with reference to history: “only a metaphysician would seek its soul in the distant ideality of the origin.”5 Thus we have to ask ourselves ‘how is Nietzsche utilising human nature?’ A pointer is given by Foucault, because he reveals that Nietzsche focuses on how human nature has ‘descended’ to it’s current position through a genealogical analysis, which, as he puts it,

“Identifies the accidents, the minute derivations – or conversely, the complete reversals – the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us.”6


My claim as regards Nietzsche’s project, then, is that his study of human nature is directly related to his study of the genealogy of morality in as much as the latter becomes the former, because tracing the twists and turns of morality also traces the ‘progress’, or decline, of our nature. However, I believe that it would be quite wrong to view Nietzsche as just a ‘narrow perfectionist’ and just a genealogist. Instead, the task should shift to Hurka’s other prong and the examination of Nietzsche in terms of ‘broad perfectionism’: a “development of capacities or some achievement of excellence”.

Sticking with On the Genealogy of Morality, David Owen can help as he rather neatly unpacks Nietzsche’s text into three key questions:

  1. What are we?
  2. How have we become what we are?
  3. Given what we are, what can we become?

Owen’s third question is where the standard, or simplistic, interpretation of Nietzsche arises, in that he is seen to  value “some development of capacities or some achievement of excellence.” However, this ‘standard interpretation’ is not always one that shows Nietzsche in a positive light. John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, as pointed out by James Conant, has fears concerning that type of perfectionism because “it will ask the claims of justice to take a back seat to the claims of excellence.”7

Back Seat.fw

Conant, after reading Stanley Cavell’s Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, comes to Nietzsche’s aid and retaliates against Rawls by introducing a new analysis of a passage from Nietzsche’s Schopenhauer as Educator. Rawls, Conant claims, significantly misinterprets the meaning of the passage due to a mistake in the translation. From this mistake, Rawls and his followers, such as Hurka, understand Nietzsche’s ‘model’ to have a teleological structure – “one which seeks to maximise those states of affairs which it deems desirable and evaluates moral principles primarily according to the degree to which they maximise optimally.”8 Or, to put it another way, let’s value those who demonstrate excellence more than those who don’t. This teleological and pernicious structure which, as we shall see, later Conant refutes leads Hurka into the position of accusing Nietzsche of “an excessively anti-egalitarian nature: ‘Nietzsche equates the aggregate excellence in a society with the excellence of its few best members, and wants social policy to maximise that’.”9

This misinterpretation, of course, symptomatically resonates with the manufactured misuse by Nietzsche’s anti-Semitic sister who caused severe problems after his death. However, the current misinterpretation stems from a passage in in the sixth section of Schopenhauer as Educator, where Nietzsche wrote:

“Mitunter ist es schwerer, eine Sache zuzugeben als sie einzusehen; und so gerade mag es den meisten ergehen, wenn sie den Satz uberlegen: ‘die Menschheit soll fortwahrend daran arbeiten, eizelne grosse Menschen zu erzeugen – und dies und nichts andre is ihre Aufgabe.’ … Denn die Frage lautet doch so: wie erhalt dein, des eilzenen Leben den hochsten Wert, die tiefste Bedeutung? … Gewiss nur dadurch, dass du zum Vorteile der seltensten und wertvollsten Exemplare lebst.”10 (Italics mine)

Schopenhauer as Educator alt.fw

Which R. J. Hollingdale, in 1983, translated as the following:

“Sometimes it is harder to accede to a thing than it is to see its truth; and that is how most people may feel when they reflect on the proposition: ‘Mankind must work continually to produce individual great human beings – this and nothing else is the task.’ … For the question is this: how can your life, the individual life, retain the highest value, the deepest significance? …. Only by your living for the good of the rarest and most valuable specimens.11 (Italics mine)

Conant makes clear that this “is the only textual support adduced by [Rawls] for the claim that Nietzsche adheres to ‘the strong version of perfectionism.’”12 The ‘strong version of perfectionism’ is the teleological, or pernicious one. So, if Conant were to provide a close analysis of this passage and find a way to refute the claim of a teleological structure to Nietzsche’s moral perfectionism then Rawl’s objection and Hurka’s subsequent accusation of anti-egalitarianism could be dismissed as invalid. Conant does just this by analysing the word ‘Exemplare,’ which was translated by R. J. Hollingdale as ‘specimen’. By employing Kant’s ‘theory of genius’ from the Critique of Judgement (to find out how you’ll have to read Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of “Schopenhauer as Educator”), Conant lends weight to his preferred translation of ‘Exemplare’ to ‘exemplar’ and by so doing brings the focus of the passage to a purely individual basis:

“It becomes clear, that you, the reader, are asked to ask yourself a question. The question you should ask yourself is: how can your life, the individual life, attain the highest value and the deepest significance? That’s a question Nietzsche says you must ask yourself in solitude; and if you pursue it, you will find that your answer to that question will force upon you the notion of an exemplar.”13

Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer by Werner Horvath, 2000.fw
Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer by Werner Horvath, 2000.

So if we are to follow Conant, Nietzsche’s moral perfectionism now takes a new turn, in that it is not teleological, and consequentially pernicious, but rather it is individual, courtesy of a focus upon exemplarity. Conant next answers the obvious question of what, for Nietzsche, was an exemplar, by referring to Schopenhauer as Educator:

“I sensed that in him, Schopenhauer, I had discovered that educator and philosopher I had sought for so long… I strove… to see through the book and to imagine the living man…who promised to make his heirs only those who would and could be more than merely his readers.”14

By examining this quote we can see that Nietzsche was not interested hero-worship, instead there is a requirement to be more than merely a reader. This point is given as a personal example, but in Thus Spoke Zarathustra it is made universal: “One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.”15 So, it seems that an exemplar requires emulation, but not copying.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle
Socrates taught Plato who then taught Aristotle

In Zarathustra/Zarathustra as Educator, Richard Schacht suggests “that in and by means of Zarathustra and Zarathustra, Nietzsche sought to provide posterity with something capable of performing the kind of ‘educating’ function he had discussed in [Schopenhauer as Educator], and considered Schopenhauer to have performed for him.”16 Such an ‘educating’ function is what Conant determined as ‘exemplariness’, or a way of showing how to attain our higher selves, which links Thus Spoke Zarathustra to On the Genealogy of Morality. Plus, If we take him at his word in Ecce Homo, Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality are the ‘reasons why’ or denying parts of his work, whereas Thus Spoke Zarathustra was ‘how to’ or affirmative part.

Let’s regroup a little.

Courtesy of Hurka and Foucault we have seen that On the Genealogy of Morality tracks the descent of humans in terms of what they value. Conant then pulls Nietzsche from the brink of mistranslation and appropriation by revealing the concept of the exemplar and its individual application, as opposed to any socially teleological formation. Finally, Schacht helps position Thus Spoke Zarathustra as the literary manifestation of an exemplar. The point of all the proceeding, though, to be clear, is that we as individuals could, and therefore should, do better.

Doing better.fw

Conant, in referring back to Schopenhauer as Educator, however, doesn’t rest on his laurels because he recognises that there is more work to be done around such statements as the following:

“Let him follow his conscience, which calls to him: Be yourself! All you are now doing, thinking, desiring is not you yourself.”17

Conant realises that Nietzsche was not trying to distinguish between two selves: one that you are at the moment, and your ‘true’ self. Instead, what Nietzsche was hammering towards was something more along the lines of personal evolution:

“Becoming who you are is not something one is ever finished doing.”18

Thinking in this manner and drawing threads together leads Conant to the realisation that one can outgrow a particular exemplar and move on to another. This he suggests is what Nietzsche did in practice:

“Schopenhauer is a teacher of whom [Nietzsche] may boast because he is a teacher the author has outgrown… Emerson is an example that as the texture of [Schopenhauer as Educator] serves to reveal, continues to function as one of the author’s current exemplars.”19

Schopenhauer and Emerson.fw
Arthur Schopenhauer and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Accepting that this is brilliant work by Conant, and also Nietzsche(!), there is, however, an unruly sticky patch to overcome. Whilst fully appreciating the point that one is a ‘work in progress’ as such and never becomes one’s self in a finite or teleological sense, and that we are in a constant state of becoming: outgrowing exemplars, and moving on to new ones; I believe that if we adopt this position of exemplarity there is a problem. The problem starts as we begin to search in order to attach our “heart to some great man,”20 as Nietzsche suggests.

As Conant explains, “your ‘higher self’, according to Nietzsche, comes into view only through your confrontation with what you trust and admire in an exemplary other.”21 Thus, we achieve our ‘higher self’ by attaching our heart, and placing our trust and admiration in the exemplar. Boiling down further, all three of these conditions for action come from our seeing particular qualities in the exemplar, and this is where I see the problem. Our seeing governs our trust, admiration, and potential for attaching our heart, and this can only be based on knowledge gained by ourselves, either directly or indirectly (for example, from others). Can this knowledge ever be sufficient for us to act and attach our hearts without regret that we might have missed a ‘truer’ potential exemplar? Or, stuck between a choice of two or more potential exemplars, assuming that we have done everything possible to ‘trade off’ differences and attributes and still not been able to come to a decision, how do we choose?


David Owen sees the potential for a moral dilemma in the latter situation but then advocates ‘moral luck’ as having to come into play, and suggests that as long as we do, indeed, act then we are on Nietzsche’s path to the higher self.22

However, does the fundamental problem not remain? That our basis for following Nietzsche’s moral perfectionist model is flawed because we have an uncertain foundation upon which to act: our knowledge alone. If we accept my reasoning that, ultimately, this is what attaching our hearts to reduces down to, then surely this is not sufficient? The door is left open to doubt and constant questioning of the chosen or potential exemplar.

To close the door, we need to take a step back and consider what I believe was Nietzsche’s original underlying master plan for On the Genealogy of Morality: to make us question those we feel drawn to, and not to accept as given the current or standard modes of practice for moral thinking. In this way, the actual fulfilment of having an exemplar is no longer necessary. It is not in the fulfilment of attaining an exemplar, but rather in the process of entertaining the idea of potential exemplars, and their inherent flaws, that leads us to a position of real ethical thinking.


Weighing up whether someone else could be our exemplar is quite possibly the best way of getting ourselves to think about ethics and working out just what is important in our lives and how we should lead them.

In writing this post, I am deeply indebted to one of my exemplars, Professor John Lippitt.


  1. Conant, J. ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future. Edited by Richard Schacht, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 234.
  2. Hurka, T. Perfectionism, Oxford, 1993, 4.
  3. Ibid., 9.
  4. Nietzsche, F. On the Genealogy of Morality. Translated by Carol Diethe, Cambridge University Press, 1996,  3-4.
  5. Foucault, M. ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ included in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault. Edited by Donald F. Bouchard, Cornell University Press, 1980, 145.
  6. Ibid., 146.
  7. Conant, J. ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future. Edited by Richard Schacht, Cambridge University Press, 2011,  186.
  8. Ibid., 189.
  9. Ibid, 189-190, including a quote from Thomas Hurka, ‘Perfectionism’, included in Encyclopaedia of Ethics. Edited by Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte. B. Becker, Routledge, 2001, 948.
  10. Ibid., 191.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 188.
  13. Ibid., 195.
  14. Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 136, and reproduced in James Conant, ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 208.
  15. Nietzsche, F. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin, 1961103.
  16. Schacht, R. ‘Zarathustra/Zarathustra as Educator’ included in Nietzsche: A Critical Reader. Edited by Peter R. Sedgwick, Blackwell, 1995, 223-224.
  17. Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 127 and reproduced in James Conant, ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 197.
  18. Conant, J. ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future. Edited by Richard Schacht, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 234.
  19. Ibid., 233.
  20. Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 163.
  21. Conant, J. ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future. Edited by Richard Schacht, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 202-203.
  22. David Owen’s remarks are paraphrased and based upon questions raised after his paper on ‘Genealogy and Ethical Confidence’ given at Wall Hall, University of Hertfordshire on the 5th of November 1998.

50. O’Keeffe the Artist


“I had been taught to work like others and after careful thinking I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life doing what had already been done.”1
Georgia O’Keeffe

Sartre’s invention of himself as a philosopher who based his thoughts and actions upon a belief in freedom rather than his philosophical training, in phenomenology and ontology, is a perfect example of his own idea that we are free to invent ourselves. To see ourselves as projects, to be able to sow, shape and steer according to our own ambitions, rather than dutifully following someone else’s indoctrination, is daunting, but also liberating and empowering. The endeavour of self is one that should be as unique as each and every one of us. To conform to a mould of prescribed behaviour and pattern for living betrays the infinite capacity that each of us has within our genetic code, abilities and potential interests. Why shouldn’t you enter a marathon, start a dog-grooming business, become an expert in survival techniques, or research particle physics? The beauty of being part of the human race is the infinite capacity for achievement, creativity and determination. All of which can give example to others, to contra the many regimes throughout history, and the present, that prevent such example by their desire for power and their insistence upon uniform thinking, dress, and activity from their comrades, civilians or congregation. To blast through, and embrace freedom, as put forth by Sartre, is liberating, but also essential if we as fully functioning members of society are not to contribute to the stagnation of that society.

Let us not forget that the ability to question, think freely and think for oneself as opposed to thinking what one is told is also ensconced in Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”2

Human Rights.fw

More than this, though, should be the case.

Normally, one would argue that where there is a right, there, de facto, needs to be a duty held by someone or some organisation to uphold that that right. However, my thought on this, if we follow Sartre, is that then rather than seeing that we have a right to the freedom of opinion and expression and that someone else has the duty to protect it, we should see that we have the duty to achieve our freedom of opinion and expression and not to allow ourselves to become sheep in the hands of ‘shepherds’ who would dictate the acceptable opinions and forms expression. To think for ourselves, so the argument goes, is ethically essential. But, maybe I’m digressing too much into the area of the general and should be more specific?


In Some Memories of Drawings, first published in 1974, Doris Bry, a friend, dealer and curator of Georgia O’Keeffe’s, set the artist the task of recalling her break-through moment some fifty years previously:

“The first seven drawings are from a group that I made in 1915-16 when I had the idea that what I had been taught was of little value to me except for the use of my materials as a language – charcoal, pencil, pen and ink, watercolour, pastel and oil. The use of my materials wasn’t a problem for me. But what to say with them? I had been taught to work like others and after careful thinking I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life doing what had already been done.”3

As a statement of artistic integrity, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. For us, though, there is an added bonus because O’Keeffe saw herself as a project, a project that had to be developed outside of the received and prescribed practice for how one should be an artist.

Violette de Mazia and Georgia O'Keeffe looking at Cezanne's The Card Players.fw
Violette de Mazia and Georgia O’Keeffe looking at Cezanne’s The Card Players

Born in 1887, from Irish, Dutch and Hungarian stock that had found its way Midwest to farm in Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin, Georgia O’Keeffe was the second of seven children. Being the first daughter of five girls, she was the classic Victorian trailblazer for her female siblings. Led by a strong and determined mother who wanted all her children to be educated, piano, violin and drawing instruction was given to all the girls from a relatively early age; Georgia was eleven when the drawing classes were introduced. Ida Totto O’Keeffe also encouraged all her children to know their own minds and, as Roxana Robinson’s definitive biography, Georgia O’Keeffe, records, at the age of fourteen Ida’s eldest daughter announced: “I’m going to be an artist.”4 From then onwards, O’Keeffe continued education in art, first at the Sacred Heart convent school in Madison, where her parents paid the additional annual fee of twenty dollars for her “instruction in art,”5 then at the “big public high school”6 in Milwaukee, where at the age of fifteen she was “decidedly disparaging about the art teacher: a gaunt maiden lady, with an over-eager manner, who wore an anxious spray of violets on her hat.”7


In 1903, when Georgia was sixteen, the whole family moved one thousand miles back east to Williamsburg, Virginia, to try and escape the family curse of early death by tuberculosis. Georgia and the three elder sisters were enrolled at the Chatham Episcopal Institute and, although accustomed to rules set by her mother and the convent, Georgia found herself rebelling against Chatham’s charter for appropriate behaviour. She spoke differently, “I knew door was door. I knew it wasn’t doe,”8 and she dressed differently as noted by classmate, Christine McRae Cocke:

“She wore a tan coat suit, short, severe, and loose, into this room filled with girls with small waists and tight-fitting dresses bedecked with ruffles and bows.”9

Ruffles and Bows.fw

McRae Cocke offers another interesting insight that highlights O’Keeffe’s sense of self and confidence:

“Nearly every girl in that study hall planned just how she was going to dress Georgia up, but her plans came to naught, for this strong-minded girl knew what suited her, and would not be changed.”10

At Chatham, despite the potential for otherwise, O’Keeffe flourished. As Robinson writes, she divided her time between studying the piano, violin and art, and even became the art editor of the yearbook in 1904. Her sense of purpose, articulated a few years earlier, was still fierce and present, as another friend, Anita Pollitzer records in an unpublished biography of O’Keeffe:

“I’m going to live a different life from the rest of you girls… I am going to give up everything for my art.”11


Her sense of purpose, enrolled her into the Art Institute of Chicago, where, even though finding herself “a very junior member of a large, illustrious group, in a formal, intimidating atmosphere… she was fifth in her class in December, seventh in January, and in February she was first.”12 In 1907, at the age of 20, O’Keeffe next went to study at the Art Students League in New York City, under William Merritt Chase, where Robinson notes individuality was encouraged as well as that the students “must make the world take them seriously.”13 Robinson draws out a particularly important realisation for O’Keeffe at this time, when she acquiesced and posed for an older student. The realisation being that by posing, and effectively being someone else’s “pet,”14 she wasn’t painting. Another point of self-understanding also occurred; when she went dancing she couldn’t paint for three days afterwards. Combined together, these discoveries concerning the effective use of time crystallised within her: “she could, dance, pose and be petted, or she could paint.”15 And, as Robinson continues, “the choice was not a difficult one. From then on, the essential question was always about painting.”16

The next few years did provide challenges, however, and after a period of being a commercial artist, to try and help her family financially, and even becoming despondent and ‘giving-up’ art altogether for a few months, O’Keeffe found resolve and entered Columbia’s Teachers College in 1914. This was the year after the all important Armory Show that had sent shockwaves across New York City with the highly visible new works of European modernism; works from artists that O’Keeffe had already admired at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery ‘291’.

291 Gallery.fw
291 Gallery

Immersing herself in the world of art O’Keeffe read Wassily Kandinsky’s 1912 work, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and honed her abilities to a “virtuoso”17 pitch in terms of technique, although, as Robinson remarks, content “had not yet declared itself in her work.”18 At the end of 1915, this was to change as she cut herself off from distractions and stayed in her room at Columbia over the Christmas holiday to begin “the laborious task of attempting to work purely from her own consciousness, seeking to eliminate everything from her work except herself.”19 These sessions produced the “Special”20 series recalled by O’Keeffe in the Doris Bry publication.

These works were wrapped in a bundle and sent to Chatham chum Anita Pollitzer who, at the time, was O’Keeffe’s artistic confidante. Pollitzer then did something unexpected. She showed O’Keeffe’s new works to Stieglitz at his ‘291’ gallery. His response, Pollitzer writes to O’Keeffe was as follows:

“They’re the purest, finest sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while… I wouldn’t mind showing them in one of these rooms one bit.”21

Georgia O'Keeffe, Special, Moma.fw
Special No.12 by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1916.

Later on Stieglitz wrote in his own hand to O’Keeffe:

“What am I to say? It is impossible to put into words what I saw and felt in your drawings… I do want to tell you that they gave me much joy. They were a real surprise and above all I felt that they were a genuine expression of yourself.”22

The start of their relationship and life together (which only ended with his death) and her career as an artist began at this time. She also went to a small town called Canyon, near Amarillo, Texas to teach, but became enraptured by the wide open spaces: “Anita you have never seen SKY – it is wonderful.”23 Despite being buoyed up by her environment, and the feedback from Stieglitz and others, however, she managed to keep her feet firmly on the ground:

“I’ve never thought of myself as having a great gift… It isn’t just talent. You have to have someone else. You have to have a kind of nerve. It’s mostly a lot of nerve, and a lot of very, very hard work.”24

O'Keefe at work.fw

On 3rd April, 1917, Stieglitz presented Gallery 291’s last exhibition before it closed due to the building on Fifth Avenue being scheduled for demolition, but it was the first solo exhibition by a woman: Recent work by Georgia O’Keeffe. The following year, as put forward by Robinson, “Happily and deliberately, Georgia cast in her lot with an impecunious and impetuous older man.”25 She had fallen in love with Stieglitz and moved in with him, when she was thirty and he was fifty-three. She was an emerging artist and he was the man who had legitimised photography as an art-form, promoted the careers of several household names across all forms of visual art, was published, a patron, a collector and well-respected champion of modern art. Consequently, it would have been all so easy to succumb to Stieglitz’s artistic authority and will. However, to her testament, O’Keeffe very much held own in their relationship and in her professional aspirations. She was her own person and her own artist. She and cared about her work and she, not anyone else, directed how it should be carried out and developed. How other people thought about her work was always secondary and to a great extent to be avoided wherever and whenever possible, no matter who they were:

“By now O’Keeffe was beyond intimidation or advice, even from so eminent a personage as Alfred Stieglitz. In a spirit of peaceful coexistence, she painted what she needed to paint and let people say about it what they needed to say. ‘If I stop to think of what others – authorities – would say… I’d not be able to do anything’.”26

Georgia confident.fw

Robinson continues:

“Distancing herself from critics and the public was a process that would become crucial for O’Keeffe, one increasingly integral to her character.”27

To become a project for oneself means not being the project/s that others, individually or collectively want us to be. This is Sartrean because it recognises the freedom we have to make ourselves ourselves and not to succumb meekly to what others try and make us. O’Keeffe wanted to be an artist and she knew that meant that only she could, and should, determine how to shape herself as an artist. The lessons learned throughout her formative years and the art-school training in Chicago and New Year had equipped her with the tools of her craft, but it was up to her to find her art and the artist within her. Being someone else’s project, puppet or pet was by now a dead-end and anathema to her. To be an artist meant that she alone could control the choices that needed to be made. Robinson, throughout her biography, explicitly understands this vital aspect to O’Keeffe:

“The artist must pursue a solitary and revisionist vision, maintaining her own interior silence. Once she listens to the voice of the public, the artist has lost her own.”28

Georgia by Steiglitz.fw

For O’Keeffe, this sense of self-preservation and focus, so as not to become subsumed into the whims of others meant taking choices outside of societies norms, such as deciding to keep her surname when she and Stieglitz finally married in 1924, when she was thirty-seven. Her name was synonymous, of course, with her art, but to become Mrs Stiglitz, with everything that entailed from a feminist perspective, as to being placed immediately in a secondary role, was not at all how O’Keeffe regarded herself. Let alone the professional sleight and damage that could be wrought by changing her name just as she was becoming established in the art-world and to also be forever ‘Alfred Stieglitz’s wife’ rather than ‘Georgia O’Keeffe, artist’. Being one’s own project sometimes means making difficult choices and O’Keeffe knew this all to well. It also means that one has to be self-reliant in finding one’s own way. O’Keeffe displayed an almost intuitive awareness to this and demonstrated great integrity and understanding by actively shying away from bestowing advice to her sisters Catherine and Ida when they came to her with their own ambitions of following her footsteps and becoming artists; encouragement, yes, but direction, no. As far as O’Keeffe was concerned each artist, whether her, one of her sisters, or anyone else, has to find their own path and not be led astray by the ‘advice’ of others, no matter how well-intentioned. Perhaps the greatest way that O’Keeffe demonstrated her adherence to seriously taking such responsibility for herself in order to become the artist she wanted to be was in allowing herself to follow her desire and passion for the landscapes she discovered in Texas and then New Mexico.


From the 1920s onwards she periodically left the ‘city’ to immerse and nourish herself in the spaces that spoke to her. Not once in their time together did Alfred ever join her in these ever increasing sojourns that would keep them apart for months on end. Her love and need for the horizon, red earth and vast skies of the desert fed her artistic creativity and allowed her to fulfil her vision in a manner that never could have happened in New York City or by being part of a wider movement:

“She never became a member of other groups that formed around her: Precisionists, Regionalists, or Surrealists. Stieglitz always worked with groups and liked the idea of communal effort, but O’Keeffe felt that her work was a private endeavour. ‘Stieglitz liked the idea of a group,’ she said ‘I didn’t’.”29

O’Keeffe, the artist, was the project and quite obviously history has recorded the success that followed. As Robinson recognises, to become that artist though meant O’Keeffe had to be incredibly single-minded at times and walk a lonely path:

“In the subtle and continual conflict between work and the world, again and again Georgia chose work… Georgia took pleasure in her friends, enjoyed their company, and acknowledged some of the demands of society. Work, however, was an imperative. Solitude was the constant, society the deviation.”30

O'Keeffe by Steiglitz.fw


  1. O’Keeffe, G. Some Memories of Drawings, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 19881.
  2. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, [viewed on 26th January 2018]. Available from: http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html
  3. O’Keeffe, G. Some Memories of Drawings, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 19881.
  4. Robinson, R. Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, Bloomsbury, 1997, 30.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 32.
  7. Ibid., 32-33.
  8. Ibid., 42.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 46.
  12. Ibid., 51-52.
  13. Ibid., 59.
  14. Ibid., 61.
  15. Ibid., 62.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 108.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 127.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 129.
  22. Ibid., 131-132.
  23. Ibid., 161.
  24. Ibid., 166.
  25. Ibid., 220.
  26. Ibid., 223-224.
  27. Ibid., 242.
  28. Ibid., 256.
  29. Ibid., 369.
  30. Ibid., 447.

49. Project ‘I’


“We make ourselves and define our way of life by projecting ourselves toward the future, and by constantly going beyond the given situation in which we find ourselves.”1
David A. Jopling

This is going to be our last outing with Sartre, plus we are approaching the end of our journey altogether. There will be just one final philosopher to briefly, all too briefly, consider before our ethical thirst has possibly been quenched.

At the start of our foray into Sartre’s thinking we learned how consciousness is based upon ontological precepts, and also that there is a difficulty in trying to get to ethics from ontology. We then grappled, in post 41, with the veil of nothingness and got directed, by the Parisian, to freedom, which, if we recall, was his special chosen term to describe the “buffer of nothingness”2 that appears when an object is held in question. He could have chosen contemplation, consideration or inspection, however freedom, evidently, was his goal and our first real clue regarding his ethical agenda. The clue being that the pathway from nothingness doesn’t solely, logically or even necessarily lead to freedom. Rather, Sartre seemed to pre-empt freedom and we, taking him on faith, followed him in the hope of being rewarded. The temporary reward in post 43 was to see, fleetingly, Sartre gesture towards freedom as an attitude of mind that one needs to adopt. However, maybe so as not to allow any questions as to quite why that is the case, he immediately plunged into a description of anguish, swiftly followed by bad faith and responsibility.


Anguish is an appropriate response when trying to accept that one’s freedom is based upon existence preceding essence, because there is a leap into the unknown and one has every right to feel scared. To be in bad faith, on the other hand, and believe that one has a pre-given essence or destiny is to be a coward or worse. There is a beautiful simplicity to Sartre’s internal logic within these thoughts as long as we allow him this space and don’t caught up in the lack of foundation. It’s true that ultimately, Sartre’s thinking rests thinly upon the rocks of his conviction regarding freedom as opposed to sound philosophical reasoning as performed in the good ol’ days of yore (which, as we all know, yielded to their own fallacies upon close inspection). However, if we allow him his head, from the moment of bringing forth freedom as an attitude of mind, Sartre starts to wind a very convincing and coherent set of lines around ethics. To place responsibility for our actions squarely upon our own shoulders is a bold and innovative stance, just as stating that the opposite positions of quietism, excuse making or fulfilling destiny are despicable. There is great power in his persuasion and it is hard to argue against without looking weak and coward-like.

Sartre’s next play is to revisit consciousness and give it another dimension within his thinking. This time, it becomes the plateau from where the decision to be responsible arrives. Consciousness precedes responsibility in Sartre’s world and, indeed, it governs so as to make us responsible. Of course, logic gets damned once more by Sartre because, consciousness doesn’t necessarily bring forth responsibility although, in an ideal world, it should. Casting logic aside, then, Sartre continues shaping the more positive side of his thinking and, when addressing the problem of existential identity, realises something quite wonderful. If we regard ourselves as possessing freedom then we are free to invent ourselves.

Free to invent ourselves

It seems that by forsaking his once cherished ontological and foundational precepts, Sartre cuts himself free to float loftily upwards where a greater perspective can be gained. Nothingness to freedom, and consciousness to responsibility, might not be necessarily so: it seems one can never go easily from ontology to ethics. However, there is a clearer view up here in Sartre’s balloon, than arguably can be seen from scrabbling around in ontology’s debris and dust.


So, let us continue onwards to our final Sartrean destination.

It seems that we are condemned to invent ourselves: there is nothing else we can do. However, as we have mentioned previously, we have to take moral responsibility for this ‘invention’ because there no blame can be apportioned elsewhere, if we are completely free to choose our invention.

Taking this further, by choosing a role, or inventing ourselves, we actually choose a project to undertake, and it’s this last piece of Sartre’s thinking that we now need to explore. David A. Jopling has the following to say about undertaking a project of our self:

“We make ourselves and define our way of life by projecting ourselves toward the future, and by constantly going beyond the given situation in which we find ourselves. The multifarious actions, desires, beliefs, and experiences our lives comprise must, in Sartre’s words, ‘derive their meaning from an original projection’ that we make of ourselves.”3

Project forward

Digging deeper into the process and mechanics of how such a projection occurs, Jopling continues:

“The project is actively constructed, and not given or fixed. The numerous antecedent conditions that are ordinarily constructed as having a causal influence in the formation of our identity (such as genetic, environmental, and social factors) affect us not for what they are in themselves, but for what we make of them insofar as we project ourselves beyond them, confer meaning upon them, and construct from them a signifying situation.”4

That said, though by Jopling, these acts of invention, or projection, must be understood as ones that can at any time be rejected, or surpassed, by the ‘freely choosing’ being-for-itself. Such rejection or surpassing might well lead, of course, to anguish as we can not say whether our future self will at a later date reject or comply with such a decision. However, the point stands that just as once we had a project to direct all our energy towards being a palaeontologist when aged nine, the day might come when that project is set aside in favour of being, let’s say, a Lego designer.

Lego designer.fw
Image courtesy of lego.tomleech.com

Each of us, then, can be considered in some ways as an ongoing project, not fixed or determined but ever evolving and extending into the future.

At the risk of repeating what we have already seen in post 39, but for a different purpose, I want to look again at the limits of Sartre’s philosophical starting place, which he himself set out:

“Ontology itself can not formulate ethical precepts. It is concerned solely with what is, and we can not possibly derive imperatives from ontology’s indicatives.”5

En route, we can acknowledge that Sartre’s ontological bind shows why Levinas started from scratch and not ontology or phenomenology, however let’s remember that Sartre also stated, in Being and Nothingness, that ontology “allows us to catch a glimpse of what sort of ethics will assume its responsibilities when confronted with a human reality in situation.”6 Now, the reason for this re-fresh is the addition that Christina Howells brings to the table. Howells thinks that by peeking at ethics through ontology’s door Sartre is leading himself, and us, to a place where freedom acts like a value7. This is because Sartre’s whole philosophy, one could argue, steers towards the announcement of freedom as being the critical component of our lives. The game is given away, though, not by Howells in the first instance, but by Jean-Paul himself. In Existentialism and Humanism he actually declares, “We will freedom for freedom’s sake,”8 and by doing so declares that freedom is a value.

Freedom as a value.fw

Now, hold on to your hats, because there is a deeper impact than one might at first suspect. From this honesty in Being and Nothingness, regarding his belief that ontology itself cannot form ethical precepts, I believe that the declaration in Existentialism and Humanism, of freedom being willed for freedom’s sake, represents a significant shift. The shift is that ontology has been abandoned to something more important and that something is what Sartre has developed from his thinking around freedom. In some ways the statement in Existentialism and Humanism casts off the shackles of his previous thinking and plonks freedom before his audience with defiance in his heart. He knows the move he is making is philosophically unjustified, but takes the spirited leap from ontology to morality anyway. And this is, ultimately, where we see Sartre taking his own medicine, as I will now explain.

Throughout Being and Nothingness, Sartre was trying to demonstrate his adherence to the current vogue of philosophical protocol as executed ‘on the continent’ as opposed to in America or Britain. Phenomenology and ontology were assiduously studied, advanced and pushed to their limits. The difficulty for Sartre was that he wanted to get beyond their limits, to ethics, but was shackled by the very discipline he sought to uphold. In his eyes his project was to be a philosopher in the grand continental tradition. However, this project he came to realise could not get him where he wanted. So, presumably cogitating upon his thoughts regarding freedom and bad faith, he stared, anguish ridden, at his life’s work and chose, with his ideas of freedom foremost in his mind, to begin afresh and start a new project for himself. The new Sartre project turned away from ‘Sartre – The Grand Philosopher’ and towards ‘Sartre – The Existential Freedom Fighter’, where freedom was to be at the heart of all his thinking and his actions. To authentically believe in freedom and that ‘man’ should invent ‘himself’ was for Sartre absolutely something he couldn’t just theorize, he had to embody it. So, that is what he did. He leapt from ontology with all its comfort, security and both feet planted firmly on the ground, to the giddy swirling currents of airborne existential freedom, with no parachute attached.

Existential Freedom.fw

The leap of faith to freedom, with all its multi-faceted dimensions and internal coherence, is nonetheless still a leap. However, it is also a testament to Sartre’s belief in himself that he had discovered something valuable and intrinsically more worthwhile than following traditional agendas. To write and conceptualise is one thing, but to take your own medicine and in this case tear up the rulebook because you have discovered something you believe is better, is the stuff of great anguish. Sartre could easily have knuckled under and kept on plodding and poking around ontology and phenomenology and given himself a very easy life studying and tutoring the continental philosophical canon as it had come to be. To reject the ease and comfort and embark upon an untested new project with only one’s self-belief to keep one warm at night shows great courage and integrity. Now, hats off to Jean-Paul!

Hats off.fw

Another way of looking at this shift is suggested by Alasdair MacIntyre in his After Virtue. MacIntyre reasons that a morality based on ‘what man is like,’ or an ontology as we understand it, needs a metaphysical bridge to get from that ontology to the morality. The metaphysical element needs to be a form of teleology according to MacIntyre. Interestingly, Sartre also recognised this from the get-go at the very start of his Notebooks for an Ethics:

“So long as one believes in God [as a form of teleology] one has the right to do the good in order to be moral. Morality becomes a certain mode of ontological being, even something metaphysical in that we have to attain it.”9

So, the problem for Sartre, it could be argued, was to find a replacement metaphysical teleology for that of God, or another way to base morality other than upon ‘what man is like.’ Personally, I think he did this in his conceptualization of what freedom meant because as he said in Existentialism and Humanism, “We will freedom for freedom’s sake”. This is not a replacement metaphysical teleology but it is another way to base morality. Plus, as is suggested by the title of the lecture, it is not reliant upon metaphysics and therefore becomes a form of Humanism. Sartre did waver, though. Anthony Manser spots the wavering in Sartre’s monumental study Saint Genet where he wrote: “I am… deeply convinced that morality as such [non­ Christian/religious] is both impossible and necessary.”10 If we can forego his wavering in Saint Genet, what we find in Existentialism and Humanism is a handcrafted piece of thinking that starts philosophy afresh and builds a whole approach for how to live that one doesn’t find anywhere else in the traditional canon. Of course, there are resonances and slight borrowings from previous thinkers. However, the system that Sartre builds with all its varying components is unique, just like a Louise Nevelson work. Plus, it is a form of Humanist thinking.

Sky Cathedral by Louise Nevelson, 1982.fw
Sky Cathedral by Louise Nevelson, 1982

Where traditional philosophies crack under the burden of bridging from ontology to morality via the required invocation of a metaphysical element and as a consequence bring forth a conception of God, Sartre resists. Better yet, Sartre invents. And what he invents is that we are each the controllers of our own selves, because we are free. Sartre rejects metaphysical notions of God, religion and the afterlife and he brings his ideas squarely into our day-to-day lives. There is no need for metaphysics in any of its forms because he gives freedom its own space and stature by stating, “We will freedom for freedom’s sake”. So, freedom does becomes a value to uphold in its own right, in Sartre’s hands.

By the introduction of freedom in this manner, Sartre cleared the decks and swept out the turgid thinking of centuries, of not only philosophy, but also religion. In turn, this clearing brought forth the idea that each of us should become our own project. And, as Jopling states: “We make ourselves and define our way of life by projecting ourselves toward the future, and by constantly going beyond the given situation in which we find ourselves.” Out of all the activities, pursuits, service and projects we can concoct and submit ourselves to, Sartre stands proud and declares that one project above all others should be prioritised and that I call “Project ‘I’”. It’s yours, it’s mine, it’s everybody’s. We each have our own Project ‘I’ and we are each free to cast ourselves into the future.

All together Project I.fw

Hence we near the completion of our Sartrean sojourn. He has given us a thorough, and incredibly complex, explanation of what he means by ‘man is free’. However, should we believe we have freedom, responsibility, ourselves as projects and take arms against bad faith? Or, should we argue that Sartre’s ethics is commits some sort of fallacy and is thereby unfounded and ultimately redundant? Personally, as I hope to have made clear, I feel there is much to learn from Sartre. However, maybe, if my argument has not been strong enough to convince you and you still hold that he was misguided in trying to derive ethics from ontological principles, the following can be said. One mustn’t forget that myths, sci-fi and fantasy provide examples of how to live if we suspend disbelief as to their originating premises. And, whilst they might not be held in high esteem when compared to the exalted heights of traditional philosophical thinking, they do emit, sometimes incredibly powerfully, tangible examples of how we should live and how we can be ethical. Not all learning about ethics comes solely from the font of the preserved tradition. I think Sartre’s didn’t and I certainly think yours shouldn’t.


  1. Jopling, D. A. ‘Sartre’s Moral Psychology’ included in The Cambridge Companion to Sartre. Edited by Christina Howells, Cambridge University Press, 1992. 111.
  2. Caws, P. Sartre, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, 70.
  3. Jopling, D. A. ‘Sartre’s Moral Psychology’ reproduced in The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, Cambridge University Press, 1992. 111.
  4. Ibid., 113.
  5. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 625.
  6. Ibid. 625-626.
  7. See Howells, C. Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, Cambridge University Press, 1988, 25.
  8. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 51.
  9. Sartre, J-P. Notebooks For An Ethics. Translated by David Pellauer, The University of Chicago Press, London, 1992, 3.
  10. Manser, A. Sartre: A Philosophic Study, The Althone Press, 1966, 138.

48. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists


Taking responsibility to heart and then acting on it is, more often than not, the hardest choice to make. Just as being authentic sometimes means having to redouble one’s efforts in order to persuade others of the worth of your conviction when they would rather shout you down.

We left the last post with freedom, responsibility and authenticity in our minds. We also had Sartre walking around the edge of ethics rather than leading step-by-step from a secure foundation through to a logical conclusion. So, in keeping with this spirit, and also the one that guides this series of posts, it makes sense to look for our cultural mirror in a work that has always been at the furthest edge of the canon but, by being there, has helped give shape and definition to that canon. The edge position occupied by The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is most readily understood due to the overtly political nature of its text. However, underneath there is also philosophical nature given form by one of the main protagonists, Frank Owen, who exemplifies in his words and deeds much of what Sartre shows us concerning responsibility and authenticity.

Robert Tressell.fw

Robert Tressell’s novel begins with twenty-five “carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, bricklayers and painters, besides several unskilled labourers”1 working to renovate the new home of a local dignity in the fictional southern town of Mugsborough. The story is set at the turn of the twentieth century and is based very much upon Tressell’s own experiences. Frank Owen is quickly picked out amongst the throng when a discussion emerges concerning “fissical policy”2 and politics. Owen immediately confronts, and seemingly sets himself above, his colleagues:

“Does the fact that you never ‘trouble your heads about politics’ prevent you from voting at election times?”3

We learn, as the text progresses, that Owen in contradistinction has taken the time and is very well apprised of politics. Tressell sides with Owen and writes a damning account of the other workers’ ignorance and how their minds are brainwashed by the media. Sociologically, Tressell’s account is remarkable in his concise assessment as it is also, apparently, timeless:

“None of them really understood the subject: not one of them had ever devoted fifteen consecutive minutes to the earnest investigation of it. The papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of foreign merchandise imported into this country, the enormous numbers of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade. These were the seeds which, cunningly sown in their minds, caused to grow up within them a bitter undiscriminating hatred of foreigners… The country was in a hell of a state, poverty, hunger and misery in a hundred forms had already invaded thousands of homes and stood upon the thresholds of thousands more. How came these things to be? It was the bloody foreigner!”4


This is Owen’s base layer, to which he decides to tackle and find some way to correct. Discussions ensue throughout the work on the house in the break-times, no talking being allowed during work except when relevant to the job in hand. The first topic of conversation is the cause of poverty, to which the others ascribe all manner of red herrings. Over-population, drink, laziness, machinery, women, education, and early marriages were all trotted out causing Owen to reflect “Were they all hopelessly stupid? Had their intelligence never developed beyond the childhood stage? Or was he himself mad?”5 Taking a different route, Owen decides to define his understanding of poverty:

“What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilisation; the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food.”6

The response to this list of outrageous requirements reveals one of Tressell’s fundamental tenets: the blind acceptance of a social hierarchy by those near or at the bottom:

“Everybody laughed. It was ridiculous. The idea of the likes of them wanting or having such things.”7

Workers laughing 3.fw

Owen’s response is to try and show his fellow workers that they should see themselves as equal to their ‘betters’: “We do our full share of the work, therefore we should have a full share of the things that are made by work.”8 Silence ensues as the others try to grapple with this novel idea and Owen takes the opportunity to push their minds further:

“As things are now, instead of enjoying the advantages of civilisation we are really worse off than slaves, for if we were slaves our owners in their own interest would see to it that we always had food…”9

At which point, he gets cut short. However, maybe there’s advantage in that for us to also interject and remind ourselves that Owen was right. Before the advent of the Welfare State, unions that had to be listened to and various pieces of legislation designed to protect individuals, life was incredibly perilous for most employees. The threat of being laid off and without an income to provide for food, clothing, warmth and shelter loomed around every corner, especially when work was of a piecemeal nature. And, it was to this status quo, which his peers all seemed to sign up to without question, that Owen applies himself throughout the book as he tries to teach them that life could be otherwise if only they could allow themselves to think differently. In his quest, though, Owen finds his views are shot down and thwarted by all those around and he expresses frustration to Nora, his wife:

“And yet, all their lives they have supported and defended the system that robbed them, and have resisted and ridiculed every proposal to alter it. It’s wrong to feel sorry for such people; they deserve to suffer.”10

Employment line.fw

Worse than this, though, Owen thinks about putting his small family, including his young son, Frankie, out of their own particular misery when he reads in the newspaper of a “Terrible Domestic Tragedy”11 committed by a man, whose home was devoid of furniture, food or any sign of hope, who took the lives of each member of his family before taking his own.

Owen, however, holds the dark thoughts about his fellow sufferers and his own personal condition at bay and at times seems to keep going just to spite and argue with his colleagues. When Bob Crass states, “Machinery is the real cause of poverty,”12 Owen, one feels, is almost compelled to point out his wrongheadedness:

“Machinery is undoubtedly the cause of unemployment, but it’s not the cause of poverty: that’s another matter altogether… Poverty consists in a shortage of the necessaries of life. When those things are so scarce or so dear that people are unable to obtain sufficient of them to satisfy all their needs, those people are in a condition of poverty. If you think that the machinery, which makes it possible to produce all the necessaries of life in abundance, is the cause of the shortage, it seems to me that there must be something the matter with your minds.”13

Machinery 2.fw

As the day-to-day drudgery of their work continues, Owen stance shifts and he takes less of a confrontational position that begins to show in his choice of pronouns. ‘We’ and ‘us’ replace ‘they’ and ‘your’ as he aligns himself with his peers rather than distancing himself from them. Talking to Will Easton, whilst they are both in the same room painting, an ‘illegal’ undertaking in their foreman’s eyes, Owen asks:

“Do you think it’s right for us to tamely make up our minds to live for the rest of our lives under such conditions…?”14

Easton’s reply misses the point as he believes that “trade hasn’t always been as bad as it is now.”15 Going further off-track, Easton recalls when they could work fourteen and sixteen hours a day, as if that would solve their problems. Owen, rather than adopting his previous ‘take no prisoners’ approach, tries to open Easton’s mind:

“But don’t you think it’s worth while trying to find out whether it’s possible to so arrange things that we be able to live like civilised human beings without being alternately worked to death or starved?”16

Death 2.fw

At this moment Owen, as well as moving beyond confrontation, starts to see his fellow workers as people who could conceivably change their thinking if encouraged and shown how. And with this new vision from Owen, perhaps we can start to see a glimmer of responsibility for those he worked with coming to the fore?

Steadily, Owen begins a process of attempting to talk to his colleagues during their breaks, in a way that they can understand. He is heckled and argued with along the way, but continues the next day if shouted down on the previous. Progress is made apparent by Tressell, when we witness Easton talking with Joe Philpot and Fred Harlow:

“’There’s no doubt Owen knows ‘is work,’ remarked Easton, although ‘e is a bit orf is onion about Socialism.’
‘I don’t know so much about that, mate,’ returned Philpot. ‘I agree with a lot that ‘e ses. I’ve often thought the same things meself, but I can’t talk like ‘im, cause I ain’t got no ‘ead for it.’
‘I agree with some of it too,’ said Harlow with a laugh, ‘but all the same ‘e does say some bloody silly things, you must admit.’”17


Two steps forward, one step back? A little while later, after Owen shows them what he he’s named the ‘Great Money Trick’, Harlow starts to show signs of understanding:

“I begin to think that a great deal of what Owen says is true. But for my part I can’t see ‘ow it’s ever goin’ to be altered.”18

Owen’s views and opinions are slowly showing signs of taking root in some of his peers, whilst others still cast aspersions. He is even nicknamed the ‘Professor’, by a few and rises to the occasion by jocularly taking to the ‘pulpit’, a small pair of steps arranged by Philpot:

“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, it is with some degree of hesitation that I venture to address myself to such a large, distinguished, fashionable and intelligent looking audience as that which I have the honour of seeing before me on the present occasion.”19

His good humour is rewarded by the laughter of those gathered in the room sitting on upturned pails, planks stretched across step-ladders lying on their sides, and other jerry-rigged temporary seating. Crass, who has been biding his time over the past few days, however unleashes the contents of a cutting from the Obscurer newspaper which he believes delivers a hammer blow to Owen’s ideas about Socialism. Owen doesn’t flinch and declares: “That isn’t an argument against Socialism – it’s an argument against the hypocrites who pretend to be Christians”20 and flings it back to Crass and some of the others whom he knows practice just such hypocrisy. As an open atheist, in a time when such free-thinking pretty made you an outcast, this was potentially a danger play to make. However, Owen doesn’t fall foul and is allowed to hold forth further due to the inability of Crass to pit his wits much further than reading out the newspaper cutting.

Socialism Hooey.fw

Where Owen takes his ‘congregation’ or lecture next, I believe, shines a Sartrean light. Whether the theme of hypocrisy was playing on Tressell’s mind or whether he just wanted to go where his narrative was flowing, we shall never know. He died from pulmonary tuberculosis as soon as the manuscript was completed in 1911, at the tragically early age of forty. Owen’s words, in the text, however, give insight into the undercurrent of his thinking, if we substitute ‘I’, or ‘Owen’, when he uses “The Socialist” or “he”:

“The Socialist… pleads for the changing of the system. He advocates Co-operation instead of Competition: but how can he co-operate with people who insist on competing with him? No individual can practise co-operation by himself! Socialism can only be practised by the Community – that is the meaning of the word.”21

Hastings 1911, image courtesy of Glyn Hughes’ The Hundred Books

Owen, if I read Tressell’s work correctly, has discovered that if he truly believes in Socialism then he must find a way to co-operate with others, even if, frustratingly, their first instinct is to reject his ideas. This is the demoralising path that he must tread if he is sincere in his belief in Socialism. And, such sincerity, of course, is only a theoretical stand-in for Sartre’s reworking of authenticity. To be a Socialist on one’s own is not to practice Socialism. So, with the arrival of this self-evident truth comes Owen’s entry into authenticity. Maybe because of this realisation that he needs others to understand in order for Socialism to attempt any kind of potential, he applies himself with more vigour to the task of explaining the cause of poverty to his audience and creates what Tressell, quite blandly, called The Oblong. Essentially, a chart to show pictorially how the products of labour get shared out amongst different sectors of society, The Oblong gives an anchor for the others to grapple intellectually with as Owen tries to educate them as to how the nation’s wealth is created and into whose pockets most of that wealth gets distributed:

“They were compelled to do a little thinking on their own account, and it was a process to which they were unaccustomed… Several men had risen from their seats and were attentively studying the diagrams Owen had drawn on the wall; and nearly all the others were making the same mental effort.”22

The Oblong.fw

Owen hadn’t quite achieved a eureka moment, though, because as Tressell makes clear, “they were trying to think of something to say in defence of those who robbed them of the fruits of their toil.”23 Resistance brought forth no tenable opposition, however.

What happens next in the novel, for Owen, is a series of more personal involvements with his colleagues. He lends pamphlets and books on Socialism to those who ask, he buys and distributes pamphlets, and even got attacked by an angry mob during the election season. Throughout, he is dogged by doubt and depressive thoughts, but his actions continue to display the authenticity he has found. Two of his actions stand out, right at the last in the novel, which demonstrate how Sartrean responsibility had also come to pass within Owen’s outlook and life.


Since the separation of Easton from his wife, Ruth, Owen and Nora have had Ruth and her child living with them. This state of affairs has unsettled Easton and he wants her back. However, at the start he thinks it should be on his terms. Owen “unable to control his resentment of the other’s manner”24 steps up and seizes responsibility for his fellow worker and tells him what’s what:

“As far as I understand it, you had a good wife and you ill-treated her… The responsibility for what has happened is mainly yours, but apparently you wish to pose now as being very generous and to ‘forgive her’ – you’re ‘willing’ to take her back; but it seems to me that it would be more fitting that you should ask her to forgive you.”25

Finger pointing.fw

To give Easton his due, he listened to Owen and acted accordingly. Owen’s next conquest and display of responsibility occurs when he finds the undernourished and poorly developed fifteen year-old apprentice, Bert White, hard at work without any fire to warm him in an out-building at Rushton’s firm. Owen countering Bert’s protests, that he has been told not to burn any of the waste wood because it is needed elsewhere, throws some timber into the fireplace and lights it. Owen then seeks out Rushton to reprimand him regarding his ill treatment of the young lad. Telling Rushton that he’ll have him prosecuted if he ever makes Bert work without a fire in winter again, Owen stands up to be counted and allows his words and actions to take another stance of responsibility. Rushton, just as Easton before him, knuckles under and acquiesces, but only after giving Owen a sleepless night of terror as he dreads the prospect of being laid off for insolence.

Taking responsibility to heart and then acting on it is, more often than not, the hardest choice to make. Just as being authentic sometimes means having to redouble one’s efforts in order to persuade others of the worth of your conviction when they would rather shout you down.



  1. Tressell, R. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Oxford University Press, 2008, 9.
  2. Ibid., 14.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 15.
  5. Ibid., 19.
  6. Ibid., 22.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 23.
  9. Ibid., 23-24.
  10. Ibid., 81.
  11. Ibid., 84.
  12. Ibid., 97.
  13. Ibid., 97-98.
  14. Ibid., 127.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 178.
  18. Ibid., 220.
  19. Ibid., 267.
  20. Ibid., 270.
  21. Ibid., 270-271.
  22. Ibid., 287.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 582.
  25. Ibid., 583.

47. Responsibility


Am I here and engaged, or am I wishing that I was somewhere else?

To live as humans within our world and accept responsibility for our actions, I believe, was the implicit and deep ethical driving force of Being and Nothingness. And, perhaps controversially, I think it was delivered by Sartre’s insistence that we should accept our given ‘ontological freedom’. The controversy arises because, as we have seen previously, Sartre makes a very good case for an ontological foundation for freedom, however, as we have also seen, this doesn’t mean we can proceed directly to formulate any real kind of ethics. Or, does it?

As far as Sartre was concerned, the decisions taken by those who avoid accepting their freedom and act in bad faith are conscious decisions. The decision making process is one that is a conscious one. One either acts in good faith by understanding and accepting one’s freedom or one chooses to override one’s freedom and say ‘I have no choice’ which then results in an act of bad faith. The important part being that a decision is made and that a consciousness takes that decision. Now, if a consciousness is involved one can therefore attribute a moral compass, because those possessed of consciousness are also possessed of the ability to understand that their actions can be moral or immoral. Therefore, as far as Sartre was concerned, bad faith must ultimately be viewed as immoral. When people understand themselves as compelled to act in certain ways by forces outside of their control, they act in bad faith and, as such, it can be said that they act immorally.

Compelled to act immorally.fw

Now, this is interesting because it adds a second dimension to bad faith. The first we have seen already. To recapitulate, when one acts in bad faith one attempts to deny one’s freedom and become some sort of quasi being-in-itself that does not have control over its own destiny. One’s humanity is stripped away. The second dimension attempts to strip away one’s responsibility. When someone believes themselves to be compelled to act in a certain way, they both renounce their freedom and their responsibility for their actions. This is because responsibility is present whether we like it or not due to the very fact that we have consciousness. The game is given away because we choose to act in bad faith. Believing and choosing belie consciousness, which entails responsibility. You simply can’t believe and choose without understanding responsibility. There is no escape. Someone acting in bad faith would always be brought to account by Sartre.

So, even when, following Heidegger, I see myself as ‘thrown’ into the world without consultation, I cannot but accept freedom as my birth-rite and have its ethical twin, responsibility, to attend to and escort me through life. I am not, after all, a mere rock or leaf at the mercy of causation. I am a being-for-itself, I am conscious, I am free, and finally I am accountable and without excuse. Consequently, for Sartre then, the conviction with which he put forward freedom is one at the same time that brings forth ethics, because freedom is, in his eyes, entwined completely with responsibility. To accept that one is free is to accept that one is responsible and, for Sartre, this is also to accept that one is human.

Freedom ad responsibility.fw

Before moving on, I want us to pause and reflect once more upon the positioning of freedom that Sartre presented. By stating that freedom is an ontological given for being-for-itself he could have, in some ways, concluded his argument, packed up his type-writer, and delivered the manuscript of Being and Nothingness to his publisher in the knowledge that he had given the world of philosophy an interesting phenomenological text to read alongside Heidegger’s Being and Time, and then reclined in the nearest armchair to smoke a congratulatory cigar. Sartre, though, I believe didn’t want to stop at the world of philosophy. Instead, Sartre wanted to pursue the impossible and find ethics from ontology and give something to the whole world. Now, as we have seen there have been many problems of logical consistency that have, if we are to be fair, hampered the presentation of his ideas. Probably, as a consequence, it must also be acknowledged that Sartre’s thoughts within philosophical circles have not been universally accepted; indeed it might be more correct to state that they have been more thoroughly ignored than diligently read. That said though, it is Sartre’s wider ambition that I have always been fascinated by and it is that ambition to search for ethics that has guided our current investigation and brought us to the brink of understanding Sartre’s ethical relevance.

So, reflective pause over, let’s get back to consciousness because it seems that Sartre is backing this horse as a front runner. The reason for such favouring, by Sartre, is that even though freedom is an ontological given it is also, he has decided, something affected by consciousness. However, the introduction of consciousness into the flow of how one gets from freedom to ethics is not without its problems.

Concsciousness introduced.fw

As we have seen previously in the examples of bad faith, from both psychological determinism and albeit a mis-representation of psychoanalysis, of which we can construe these are but two, Sartre obviously realised that consciousness plays a major role in the acceptance or not of one’s freedom. In both examples it was the decision of consciousness to reject freedom and act in bad faith; even in the psychoanalytic example because the individual’s consciousness chooses to believe that they have a motivating unconscious force guiding their actions which they can not necessarily control. Conversely then, the opposite must surely apply and I can consciously decide to accept my freedom and act in ‘good faith.’ And, as we are starting to understand, the role of consciousness within Sartre’s thinking must not be overlooked. Acting in ‘good faith’ is a decision, taken by consciousness that actively chooses to embrace the freedom contained within each of us. The importance of my applying such a direct spotlight is that, according to Sartre, our actions come after consciousness: the decision to be responsible comes after our consciousness. This is no small footnote regarding Sartrean thinking but rather a somewhat overlooked major cornerstone to his thought that has massive implications when placed in contrast to his contemporary Levinas who believed the opposite and stated that responsibility comes before consciousness. So, this could be a problem. Who is right? Sartre or Levinas?

Well, let’s not start nailing our trousers to one or the other’s masts just yet. Sartre has another problem. One also has to make a ‘leap of faith’ to overcome a different inherent philosophical chestnut when starting out towards ethics from ontological precepts: The question of identity.


The question of identity becomes an issue because just who is it that accepts responsibility for my actions when I am free to change my identity if, according to Sartre, I have no pre-determined essence? The consciousness which I possess as a being-for-itself gives me freedom, but at the same time prevents me from having an essence from which I could gain an identity. Christina Howells highlights this dilemma:

“Consciousness is entirely spontaneous, caused neither by the world nor by its own past. It is defined in radical opposition to the being of things which is solid, self-identical, subject to the laws of causality.”1

The difficulty that Sartre set himself, then, is that one can’t get to, or possess, an identity if one has consciousness. If I were to have identity then I would lose my freedom and consciousness and I would be, in effect, dead. The only way for me to have both freedom and identity would be for me to be God: an impossibility for Sartre and, let’s be honest, rightly so.


There is a solution that Sartre provides to this problem, however, and it goes something like this: The free person has to choose how to act and decide what they should do and what they should not do. Whatever they decide, though, they have to take responsibility for their actions and face up to the moral implications of those actions. But how can they if they have no identity? For Sartre, and here comes the solution, it is precisely because ‘man’ has no identity and has nothing at his heart that he is free to choose how he acts, and in doing so he will invent himself.

Now, let’s go carefully here, because it seems that Sartre might be philosophically lifting himself up by his bootstraps or he might just have resolved that which at first glance appeared unresolvable. ‘Man’, and we have to recognise that Sartre was unfortunately bereft of certain fundamental feminist principles, by having no fixed identity can be free to act as ‘he’ wishes. Or, to put it another way, the fact that I don’t have an identity actually acts to reinforce my freedom. So, I have freedom, but no identity. Plus, as we know, I also have consciousness. In order to be a Sartrean citizen I have to relinquish any ideas I might have regarding my identity, remember existence precedes essence. And, if one thinks about it, this is actually congruent with Sartrean logic because freedom means no fixed identity. Today I’m a primary school teacher in Bristol, tomorrow I might be a train driver in Aviemore, Scotland. Who knows what will happen? Freedom is limitless. Perhaps, though, I can think further than Aviemore and trains?

Aviemore train driver.fw

The encapsulation Sartre gave to this overcoming of the problem of identity was “You are free to choose, that is to say, invent.”2 So, it seems that as well as being condemned to be free, we are also condemned to invent ourselves; there is nothing else we can do.

However, and this takes us back to our first discussion point, we have to take moral responsibility for any ‘invention’ we apply to ourselves, and we cannot apportion blame to anyone else for our actions, because we are completely free to choose our invention. The invention of ourselves comes from our freedom not from what someone else dictates we should be.

And this is where Sartre attacks that first problem head on (as to whether responsibility comes after consciousness, as opposed to Levinas who believes the ordering of the two is reversed). Towards the end of Being and Nothingness, all right let’s state it, on page 553, Sartre writes:

“We are taking the word ‘responsibility’ in its ordinary sense as ‘consciousness (of) being the incontestable author of an event or of an object’.”3

Our consciousness, then, gives us no wriggle whatsoever in terms of it being ‘me’ who has performed the action of eating all the chocolate mousse in the fridge. Even if I try to blame it on Peter for egging me on, really it was my choice to actually eat all the mousse. I am the incontestable author of the great chocolate mousse theft and, importantly, I am conscious as to my responsibility. I alone must take the rap for this heinous crime.


All of which means, as a freely choosing being-for-itself however I invent myself, I have to take responsibility for my actions, even the ones in the past when I was a primary school teacher in Bristol (as I said at the time, I’m really sorry that Kevin the gerbil jumped out of my hands during show and tell and was never to be seen again). There can be no running away from moral responsibility as far as Sartre was concerned, even if we have no logically provable identity.

Maybe that’s the key here to the Levinas – Sartre debate as to which comes first: responsibility or consciousness. Both Levinas and Sartre would fall foul of any logically provable test applied to their thinking on responsibility and consciousness (see post 25 for Levinas). For Sartre, the foul occurs due to there being no actual, logical provable, guarantee that having consciousness means one will bear the burden of their responsibility. Someone might just shrug and state I don’t care, which would make them ammoral, according to Sartre. And, for a different person to shy away and ooze out of the door to evade being caught with their spoon in the chocolate mousse would make that person ethically immoral, as far as Sartre was concerned. This is because they know they are doing something wrong but, yet, still they go ahead and do it. And, if they proceed to blame Peter, upon capture or declare that they had to eat the chocolate mousse to save the planet from evils of chocolate and that really their actions are entirely necessary to save the rest of the human race, then they are going to be called ‘coward’ or ‘scum’ by Sartre because they are acting in bad faith. However, whatever Sartrean name calling might be applied, the logical point still stands that having consciousness doesn’t necessarily mean that one has responsibility.

Ignoring responsibility.fw

Sartre’s logical side-step at this point, however, is to state that freedom implies a kind of moral imperative, which of course is predicated upon a desire in the individual to actually be good in the first place. Those who shrug, shy away and evade in their acts of bad faith aren’t really his audience. Instead, Sartre is trying to appeal to those who want to be good. So the penultimate play that Sartre makes before setting out his thoughts on how each one of us are our own ongoing project, is to rework a favourite Kierkegaardian theme: authenticity. Reliance on any kind of religious faith and also being true to oneself are dismissed, of course, in favour of always acting in good faith.

The much discussed bad faith has it’s mirror in good faith or being authentic. In his Sartre: A Philosophic Study, Anthony Manser discusses Sartre’s notion of authenticity by referring to Sartre’s own work, Anti-Semite and Jew, from which Manser quotes:

“Authenticity, it is obvious, consists in having a lucid and truthful awareness of the situation, in bearing the responsibilities and risks which the situation demands, in taking it upon oneself with pride or humility, sometimes with horror and hatred.”4


Manser continues to examine criticisms of Sartre’s notion of authenticity. However, instead of parroting Manser I want to try and get a little further under the skin and look at authenticity afresh. “Bearing the responsibilities and risks which the situation demands” surely means sticking with the situation or problem and not running away from it or trying to shove someone else in to act as scapegoat or protagonist when actually it is ‘I’ who must see the thing through. But it is also realising that my own freedom has brought me to this position. I have chosen to be in the situation that I now find myself and therefore I should act in good faith by being fully present and engaged and accepting of whatever comes, whether it is “pride or humility” or the more terrifying “horror and hatred.” If one stops to pause or reflect on the number of occasions one has been in a meeting, at a party, chatting to one’s partner, or walking one’s child to school and asks the simple question ‘Am I here and engaged or am I wishing that I was somewhere else?’ then the difference between being authentic and being in bad faith should be brought into relief and easy to understand. For Sartre, at every instance, he would state that we have chosen to be where we are and that we should accept and affirm that choice by being authentic in that situation.

Possibly, there is a confrontation with Heidegger’s notion that we are thrown into the world, with Sartre taking a more affirmative stance in stating that we choose to be here. However, the Sartrean point that I want to stay with, though, is that all the way through he is fighting to get to this sense of responsibility. Sometimes, even he knows the precise logic of his argument is flawed and sometimes others have applied criticisms which if taken on there on act to disable Sartre’s particular argument at that moment. However, even agreeing that there are flaws, I’m still left with the insights, thoughts and ideas, we have seen, which even if they talk on the edges of ethics as opposed to neatly leading step by step to ethics are still sharp, meaningful and powerful. The thoughts, the glimpses, that Sartre shows, I think, do start to add up to something unique and important for everyone, not just philosophers, to understand. Plus, the yearning he has to demonstrate ethics and responsibility are palpable and present, and this can only add to his body of work. So, foundational, step-by-step, logically precise pathways be damned. I know there is wisdom to be found in Sartre’s walking and talking that circles around the edges of ethics, even with its name calling. So, as wait for our last Sartrean episode, I would like you to raise your glasses and cheer: For freedom, for responsibility and for authenticity!

Raise your glasses.fw


  1. Howells, C. Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, Cambridge University Press, 1988, 16.
  2. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 38.
  3. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 553.
  4. Manser, A. Sartre: A Philosophic Study, The Althone Press, 1966, 155.


46. The Name of the Rose


“I have been the hand of God.”1
Jorge of Burgos in The Name of the Rose

As we saw in the last post, ‘bad faith’ amounts to an excuse for a person’s actions. It is also a pathway actively chosen by the person themselves; they are ultimately responsible for the adoption of their pathway. The freedom that each of us has means that we are free to choose how to act or not act, thus we bear the full responsibility of our actions or inactions. To pretend that we aren’t free or to hide from our freedom is also an act of bad faith. Even if we claim to have been directed in our course by someone else, for example, an authority we have yielded under, then we are still in bad faith. This is because we have chosen to attach ourselves to that authority’s yoke. Indeed, anyone who hides behind authorities or deterministic excuses Sartre calls ‘cowards’ and those who believe that their existence is necessary he calls ‘scum’. It seems the Sartrean principles of “existence precedes essence”2 and ‘freedom’ are not to be easily challenged and name-calling might well ensue.

In 1980, Umberto Eco published his debut novel, The Name of the Rose. An extra-ordinary achievement of scholarship, narration and plot that pushed the literary bar several notches skywards. The tale of William of Baskerville’s seven days at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy with his novice, Adso of Melk, transcends and refuses easy classification. ‘Historical Novel’, clips the wings rather of Eco’s work. However, we must place appreciation to one side. Ours is a different approach. The variety of medieval religious sects, the theological disputes, the visual time-capsule Eco reveals, alongside the gruesome deaths and the detective work of William of Baskerville must all go unacknowledged, as well as the sub-plots of Adso’s sexual awakening, the complexity of the Library as Labyrinth and even the science and philosophy of Roger Bacon.

Roger Bacon and Science.fw

Instead, our focus must be on Sartrean bad faith, because it is present in spades within The Name of the Rose. The book is set in a monastery and therefore, according to Sartrean logic every monk – which the novel mainly features as opposed to lay people such as peasants and militia – would automatically fulfil Sartre’s criteria for bad faith of the ‘coward’ type. There could be great scope for disagreement here due to certain monks in the story not conforming to type at all. Remigio of Varagine and Salvatore of Montferrat don’t really appear as religiously orthodox in their thinking and let’s be honest neither does William of Baskerville. In the main though, even if some of them are only giving cursory lip service, the cast is replete with monks who all worship their Benedictine or Franciscan model of Christianity with all the usual trappings, and more. So, Sartrean bad faith is par for the course amongst the characters of Eco’s monastery. Individual freedom has long been forsaken and the authority of the word, or Holy Father, or the Abbott of the monastery has replaced the slot in their minds where a sense of Sartrean freedom should be resplendent. As a specific example of bad faith, throughout the text the several references are made to “the people of God” being divided “into shepherds (namely, the clerics), dogs (that is, warriors), and sheep (the populace)”3 and this understanding acts almost like a framework for the monks to bolster their own sense of importance in society. Although, one rarely sees any shepherding of the people take place in Eco’s text, which one assumes is historically accurate and the case!

Good Shepherd Fresco.fw

In the knowledge that the accusation of anachronistic thinking could be levied at my door, I concur and do not want to charge the general run of the monks any further with Sartrean name-calling. I do want to hurl a little verbiage in one direction, however, because it is rather interesting and also coincidentally it is the one upon which the axis of the plot develops, which can act as a frisson of spice to our exploration.

Arriving in November, with “three fingers”4 of snow on the ground, Adso and his master, William of Baskerville, are greeted at a mountainous Italian abbey, home to sixty monks. The year is 1327 and the abbott and William exchange religious flattery and pleasantries: “It is a great joy for me to set foot in Your Magnificence’s monastery, whose fame has travelled beyond these mountains.”5 Very quickly, though, pleasantries are somewhat abandoned and the rift between respective theologies is exposed; such as when the abbot asks of William, really stating that he disagrees: “Why do you insist on speaking of criminal acts without referring to their diabolical cause?”6 William is cast by Eco as an outsider who submits only to his own way of thinking rather than blindly following doctrine in the manner the Benedictine abbot has been taught and preaches. However, mutual respect overcomes differences and the abbot shares with William the story of the very recent mysterious death of Adelmo of Otranto at the abbey and even asks for William’s help in investigating what he suspects is a crime.

The Abbe and William.fw

On the first day William and Adso do the rounds and meet with the various key players in Eco’s tightly bound plot that matures its detective narrative slowly. The key figure of Jorge of Burgos is encountered and described as the second eldest of the monks in the abbey, blind and also the receiver of many confessions from the other monks. Jorge also makes an impact on William due to his passionate aversion to laughter, which he savagely defends when he and William converse:

“’But when Saint Lawrence was placed on the gridiron,’ William whispered with a saintly air, ‘at a certain point he invited his executioners to turn him over, saying that that side was already cooked…’
‘Which proves that laughter is something very close to death and to the corruption of the body,’ Jorge replied with a snarl.”7

With the advent of the second day, there is a second death. Venantius of Salvemec is found upturned in a great jar containing pigs blood.

Venantius death.fw

Unlike Adelmo’s fall from a great height, Venantius’ death very clearly indicates foul play by a third party. The abbot wastes no time and pleads with William:

“Brother William, as you see, something is afoot in this abbey, something that demands all your wisdom. But I beseech you: act quickly!”8

So, in true Sherlock Holmes fashion the game has been declared ‘afoot’ and William can begin his investigations in earnest. Benno of Uppsala, a student of rhetoric, is ‘interviewed’ and acts for Eco to present vital clues:

“Venantius, who knows … who knew Greek very well, said that Aristotle had dedicated the second book of Poetics specifically to laughter, and that if a philosopher of such greatness had devoted a whole book to laughter, then laughter must be important… Jorge asked him contemptuously whether by any chance he had read this book of Aristotle; and Venantius said that no one could have read it, because it has never been found and is perhaps lost forever…. Then Jorge said that if it had not been found, this was because it had never been written.”9


William and Jorge continue their discussion/argument about laughter and its place within a religious world view, with a stalemate outcome that provides context for Jorge’s thoughts: “Jesting about laughter, you draw me into idle debate. But you know that Christ did not laugh”.10 We also learn that Adelmo confessed his sins to Jorge. He apparently submitted to Berengar’s carnal desire for him, which led to feelings of shame, his confession and then ultimately his death as he hurled himself from the highest point in the abbey. William begins to suspect Jorge’s hand behind the deaths of the two monks, but questions how a blind old man “can kill another man in the fullness of his strength”.11

Eco systematically pours complication and context into William’s path as we learn about various breeds of heretics and start to understand the labyrinth that is the abbey’s library and Adso has his first, and possibly last (if we believe him as narrator), sexual encounter. The coming of the Anti-Christ/Apocalypse is also causing great concern among the ranks as the eldest, Alinardo recounts “the book of the apostle.”12 Later we discover this is John and the book of Revelations, where seven trumpets will sound across seven days to act as the heralds of doom:

Seven Trumpets.fw

“With the first trumpet came hail, with the second a third part of the sea became blood; and you found one body in hail [Adelmo died in a storm], the other in blood… The third trumpet warns that a burning star will fall in the third part of rivers and fountains of waters.”13

We also learn that Berengar has gone missing. And, sufficiently taken with this trumpet ‘guidance’, William has his own revelation and reasons that a “diabolical or sick mind could have been inspired by Adelmo’s death to arrange the other two in a symbolic way.”14 From this supposition, he realises that the only place in the abbey where a monk could drown is in the baths. And so he dully finds the body of the no longer missing Berengar, drowned at bottom of one of the bathtubs.

Berengar drowned.fw

With Severinus, the herbalist, William examined the bodies of the dead and noted that Venantius and Berengar both had black fingers tips on their right hands and a blackened tongue. Poison is swiftly considered as the cause of death and that, William states, “would suggest a malignant mind brooding for a long time in darkness over a murderous plan.”15

As well as being intellectually entranced by possibility of “a diabolical or sick mind” following Alinardo’s seven trumpets prophecy, William is also certain that one of the books in the Library is playing a part in the whole sinister affair. First seen on Venantius’ desk, a book written in Greek has vanished along with William’s glasses when he was examining the Greek translators desk for clues but got disturbed by the spying presence of another in the dead of night. Getting drawn away from the desk to unsuccessfully chase and discover whom the other person was, William returned only to find the book and glasses gone. Doubly dashed, he concludes that the book has a significant role to play in the recent deaths.

The book and glasses.fw

On the fifth day, Severinus tells William that he has found “a strange book”16 in his infirmary, which he believes was left or placed there by Berengar on the night he died. Just as Adso and William receive this information they “realized that, silent as was custom, Jorge had appeared as if by magic”17 at their side. Unfortunately, before they can get to the infirmary to look at the “strange book”, Severinus was murdered, smashed on the head by a large metal “armillary sphere,”18 used in astronomical science. Suspicions as to Jorge’s role flair in William and Adso’s minds, “but Jorge couldn’t have killed a strong man like Severinus, and with such violence.”19 Jorge’s age and blindness rule him out of the deed itself. However, William realises that the fourth trumpet of John the apostle refers to stars and he and Adso start to speculate regarding the fifth trumpet. The location of the book, though, which William starts to realise is forbidden, also needs to be unearthed.

In the meantime, the abbot entrusts a sermon to Jorge regarding the four deaths at the abbey. Jorge, however, takes to the pulpit with his own stance and delivers a verbal thrashing of his junior monks whilst setting out his views on the deaths and upon the purpose of the abbey:

“Madmen and presumptuous fools that you are! He who has killed will bear before God the burden of his guilt, but only because he agreed to become the vehicle of the decrees of God. Just as it was necessary for someone to betray Jesus in order for the mystery of redemption to be accomplished… Thus someone has sinned in these days, bringing death and ruination, but I say to you that this ruination was, if he not desired, at least permitted by God for the humbling of our pride.”20

Jorge peaching.fw

The murderer in Jorge’s mind serves a divine purpose and because of this we can easily start to see Jorge’s bad faith bubbling up to the surface. Jorge, however, doesn’t let his bad faith stop there:

“The work of our order and in particular the work of this monastery, a part – indeed, the substance – is study, and the preservation of knowledge. Preservation of, I say, not search for, because the property of knowledge, as a divine thing, is that it is complete and has been defined since the beginning, in the perfection of the Word which expresses itself to itself. Preservation, I say, and not search… There is no progress, no revolution of ages, in the history of knowledge, but at most a continuous and sublime recapitulation.”21

As well as being the thesis of the Dark Ages, with William’s character symbolising a proto-Renaissance antithesis, Jorge’s statements set down his core beliefs for the purpose of the monastery and his religious brethren as far as he sees it. And, let’s not forgot that Eco has layered symbolism in making Jorge blind. Nothing new shall be seen by Jorge and nothing new is desired by him or is within the scope of his earthly purpose as given from on high by the Word of God and set down by the apostles.

The word of God.fw

The monks in the abbey have their place and their purpose. Almost nothing could be better as an example of bad faith.

The sixth day brings the fifth death. Malachi collapses, gasps his last and dies at Matins in front of the whole monastery. On examination, William notices, “the pads of the first three fingers of the right hand were darkened.”22 The seventh day brings the inevitable showdown between William and Jorge. In the middle of the library’s labyrinth, the Finis Africae is the final secret room, whose entrance Adso and William must crack. Inside they discover Jorge: “Happy night, venerable Jorge. Were you waiting for us?”23 William asks. In their ensuing dialogue, William and Jorge, realising that they are both at the end of the chase, share the final explanations of what occurred at the abbey in true detective story fashion. Jorge has the book that William has been seeking and even agrees to let the Franciscan look at it: “‘Read it, leaf through it, William,’ Jorge said. ‘You have won.’”24 The text is the second book of the Poetics of Aristotle, “the book everyone has believed lost or never written.”25 Wisely William wears gloves as he reads it because he correctly surmises that years ago, before he was blind, Jorge poisoned the pages of the book so when anyone licks their fingers to turn the page they ingest the poison and die.


As the tense discussion ensues William coaxes Jorge onwards to state his motivation by asking, “Why did you want to shield this book more than so many others?”26 Jorge’s answers:

“Because it was by the Philosopher [Aristotle]. Every book by that man has destroyed a part of learning that Christianity had accumulated over the centuries… Every word of the Philosopher, by whom now even saints and prophets swear, has overturned the image of the world. But he had not succeeded in overturning the image of God. If this book were to become an object for open interpretation, we would have crossed the last boundary… here [Jorge points to the book] the function of laughter is reversed, it is elevated to art, the doors of the world of the learned are opened to it, it becomes the object of philosophy and of perfidious theology.”27

Jorge further explained the extent of the power he believed resided in the words of the second book of the Poetics: “This book could strike the Luciferine spark that would set a new fire to the whole world, and laughter would be defined as the new art, unknown even to Prometheus, for cancelling fear.”28 Essentially, the text would act as an antidote to the power that the church held over the masses and this was something that Jorge felt he could never allow to be released into the world at any cost. To further clear his own conscious, though, as to those who died, Jorge stated: “I have killed no one. Each died according to his destiny because of his sins.”29 However, more than that and in absolute bad faith he stated “I was only an instrument”30 and later “I have been the hand of God.”31 And with such statements, Jorge shows that he moves further than his fellow monks who display bad faith of the nature that hides behind the will of authorities, because his type of bad faith is the version Sartre allocated specifically to those who believe their existence necessary and we all know what he called them!



  1. Eco, U. The Name of The Rose. Translated by William Weaver, Vintage Books, London, 2014, 512.
  2. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 28.
  3. Eco, U. The Name of The Rose. Translated by William Weaver, Vintage Books, London, 2014, 156.
  4. Ibid., 23.
  5. Ibid., 27.
  6. Ibid., 33.
  7. Ibid., 103-104.
  8. Ibid., 112.
  9. Ibid., 120.
  10. Ibid., 143.
  11. Ibid., 151.
  12. Ibid., 273.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 273-274.
  15. Ibid., 284.
  16. Ibid., 372.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., 382.
  19. Ibid., 386.
  20. Ibid., 425.
  21. Ibid., 426.
  22. Ibid., 443.
  23. Ibid., 495.
  24. Ibid., 499.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid., 506.
  27. Ibid., 506-507.
  28. Ibid., 508.
  29. Ibid., 504.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid., 512.

45. Bad Faith


“Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth, – I shall call scum.”1
Jean-Paul Sartre

One of the critical issues for Sartre in his philosophy is whether each of us can actually stay with the anguish that appears in the face of freedom or, instead, we find ourselves fleeing and ducking behind the sofa trying to pretend it isn’t there.

Flights from anguish, for Sartre, amount to what he called acts of ‘bad faith’. So, if a student, using Gregory McCulloch’s favoured example of a typical British university scholar, decides to view their life as being psychologically determined because their parents have instilled in them certain values that prioritise education, then according to Sartre they are acting in bad faith. This is because they do not accept their freedom and they try to hide from it in the manner of one who is guilty. By endeavouring to flee from the anguish induced by their freedom, the student, according to Sartre, attempts to fill the void of nothingness, which is present within each of us. Following the logic through, any such attempt to fill the void of nothingness in such a manner denies our very capacity for being human and effectively renders the individual in question as mere being-in-itself. The student following their parents’ directive consequently becomes a puppet or, to be more precise, hides from freedom by adopting the role of puppet.


Essentially Sartre, in structuring his philosophical system in the way that he had, was shoring it up and protecting freedom from attack. By presenting those who wished to ignore his findings as somehow deficient, by categorising them as being-in-itself, he armed himself with a quite offensive and antagonistic form of philosophy. A by-product, or perhaps strategically designed outcome, was that he ensured his philosophy had to be listened to and engaged with. So, it could be argued, a theme of quite aggressive manoeuvring began to be developed as Sartre built-up his confidence at the same time as effectively identifying his enemies.

One, of course, has to remember the situation in which Sartre was writing and developing his ideas for Being and Nothingness, in that France was under fascist occupation with World War II providing the very visceral backdrop to Sartre’s daily life and thoughts. Great things regarding humanity and its choices were at stake. Sartre himself served in the French army as a meteorologist and was captured by German troops and imprisoned for nine months in 1940-41. Upon his release in April 1941, due to poor health (his eye-sight, he argued, affected his balance), Sartre co-founded Socialisme et Liberté, an underground group with Simone de Beauvoir and other like-minded and active philosophers who want to resist the German occupation of France and the Vichy regime. The group disbanded shortly after emerging due to Sartre becoming disillusioned with those such as André Malraux and André Gide who, for whatever reason, couldn’t commit to joining Socialisme et Liberté. It was at this juncture that Sartre turned from direct action to focus ardently upon writing – possibly a much better use of his talents.


Maybe the disappointment of the two Andrés indecisiveness spurred Sartre’s mind regarding the philosophy contained within Being and Nothingness, because one cannot help thinking that his argumentation concerning freedom and anguish seems to relate to direct personal experience on his part, so strong is his insistence. Whether this is the case though is beyond our scope. What isn’t is Sartre’s very clear upholding of freedom which comes through in spades when one takes even of a cursory look at his more journalistic output towards the end of World War II. The belief in freedom in the midst of oppression positively shouts and declares its intent. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, in December 1944, Sartre asserts the following:

“Never were we freer than under German occupation… The more the Nazi venom crept into our thoughts the more each precise thought became a conquest… Indeed the cruelty of the enemy pushed us to the extremes… all those of us (and what Frenchman was not at one time or another in this position?) who, knowing something important to the Resistance, have asked ourselves in anguish, ‘If they torture me, can I hold on?’ Thus indeed was the question of liberty brought to the very edge of the profoundest comprehension that man can have of himself.”2

Nazi Torture.fw

Clearly, the role that Sartre saw played out in the heart of every “Frenchman” during the occupation was one that was guided by the power of personal freedom for each to play their part in the Resistance. And, not as a puppet but as an active citizen knowing full well the possible perils of such action. The psychological determinism of fascist occupation in its brainwashing and very real physical threats were intended to crush the spirit and create obedience. When the threat of torture is present, against a backdrop of brainwashing, psychological determinism should be in full swing. So thought the Nazis. But as Sartre and history tells, this ‘ain’t necessarily so’. The choice to withhold information from the German occupiers goes against their deterministic setup but occurred time and time again, as Frenchmen and Frenchwomen asserted their freedom and resisted.

French Resistance-1944

This is Sartre’s point and also why he felt so strongly in regard to freedom and why he continually made the case for us to be aware of its presence. For him, freedom was the ultimate means of knowing and distinguishing that we are human: we always have freedom. To deny freedom, of course, is to set against Sartre and he will place all deniers in the realm of non-human as Beings-in-themselves as opposed to Beings-for-themselves. To, perhaps, make such a distinction easier for those who might not have drunk at the fountain of knowledge that is Being and Nothingness, Sartre made things a littler simpler by announcing that those who tried to deny freedom were acting with ‘bad faith’.

Quite early on in Being and Nothingness, when his thoughts revolved around notions of consciousness, Sartre outlined bad faith as follows: “one who practices bad faith is hiding a displeasing truth or presenting as truth a pleasing untruth.”3 The issue being that such “hiding” or “presenting” is done to oneself, within one’s own consciousness: “Bad faith… implies in essence the unity of a single consciousness.”4 This was a point of clarification that Sartre wanted to make within a discussion regarding the presence of others. Because from this point he could then get to a summary position, with the correct groundwork in place, to effectively make the claim that it is within one’s consciousness that ownership lies and the responsibility for choosing to act in bad faith. Or, as Sartre stated, “one does not undergo his bad faith; one is not infected with it; it is not a state. But consciousness affects itself with bad faith.”5

Bad faith.fw

Such an issue of ownership becomes particularly important within our thinking over the next few pages, because Sartre, almost from this point on, makes his ethical play and starts to frame his thinking around responsibility and decisions as a matter of personal choices within a framework of seeing oneself as a project. Consequently, regarding the decision to act in bad faith, Sartre states “there must be an original intention and project of bad faith,”6 which for him, as well as taking place within the closed and isolated environment of one’s consciousness and not being predicated upon any external influence or condition, leads to the conclusion that “a person can live in bad faith,.. which implies a constant and particular style of life.”7 Such a decision to act in bad faith becomes, therefore, both an internal conscious event, with no primary external cause, and also a behaviour pattern that one accepts and conditions one’s life by. To give an example of leading one’s life in bad faith, Sartre probed what happens, from his point of view, when someone undergoes psychoanalysis.

Immersed within his thoughts concerning the internal conscious process of bad faith, Sartre provided an illustration of what takes place when a lie is told. A lie requires a liar and also a victim of the lie in order to take place. Such positioning, as we can infer from the proceeding section, maps for Sartre quite neatly within the unity of one consciousness when that person acts in bad faith: The lie is both initiated by and concealed from the same person. Within the context of psychoanalysis though, a disruption to this neatness takes places. This disruption occurs because the unity of the individual’s consciousness is broken and split into two making it unclear that the person acting in bad faith is both instigator and victim. In fact for Sartre, psychoanalysis is guiltier of more than merely mudding the waters of clarity, because it provides in his eyes what amounts to an excuse for a person’s actions, which, as we are beginning to comprehend, is the central pivot upon which bad faith revolves.

Central pivot.fw

Psychoanalysis, therefore for Sartre or, more correctly, entering into a belief system whereby one understands there to be an unconscious that is separate from one’s consciousness, is in itself an example of bad faith because one renounces ownership for oneself and abdicates responsibility for one’s actions by accepting the fundamental premise that there is a force motivating us that one cannot necessarily exert control over. To Sartre this fundamental premise is a lie. Thus, across five pages of tense, but ultimately unsatisfactory argument, we see Sartre state “Freud has cut the psychic whole into two. I am the ego but I am not the id,”8 and then declare that “the explanation by means of the unconsciousness, due to the fact that it breaks the psychic unity, cannot account for the facts which at first sight it appeared to explain.”9 Consequently, by working through his criticism of psychoanalysis Sartre came to confirm his position that if anyone adopts psychoanalysis in this manner then, absolutely, they could be accused of acting in bad faith.

A critical difficulty arises in accepting Sartre’s conclusion, however, because Sartre, all the way through his argument, unfortunately presented Freudian psychoanalysis in a two-dimensional way that simplified Freud’s work. Indeed, the simplification actually determines that bad faith will be the end result if the ‘psyche’ is seen to be cleaved in two in the manner that Sartre represented the psychoanalytic division of consciousness from the unconscious. Clearly, with such a ‘straw-man’ argument one feels obliged to take issue with Sartre even as one understands his concept of bad faith perhaps more fully courtesy of this mis-representation of psychoanalysis. However, even though criticism can be levied at his argument our interest, as it always must, lies in the potential ethical insight that Sartre offers and not in criticising his faux approximate understanding of psychoanalysis. The over-arching ethical point that Sartre quite clearly laid out, although it is implicit due to his insistence on engaging in an almost self-righteous but ultimately redundant critique of psychoanalysis, is that there is an issue of conscious responsibility to be considered for us as humans engaging with, and performing actions in, the world. Precisely what Sartre means by responsibility will be covered in a future post.


For the moment, let us return to Sartre’s passion: freedom. In his 29 October 1945 lecture, Existentialism is a Humanism, as his opening remarks suggest, “to offer a defence of existentialism against several reproaches that have been laid against it,”10  reworks his ideas on freedom. However, within the twenty-three page guided tour of his philosophy, given within two months of World War II finally being over, “existence precedes essence”11 initially takes centre stage. A phrase which means, as we know from post 41, that we have no preordained purpose and it is up to us to create our own essence. Such staging, in his lecture, then allows Sartre to position freedom:

“For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom.”12

If we can accept that Sartre, being of his time, chose the signifier “man” to represent “human”, it becomes apparent that for Sartre one of the consequences of his neatly set out philosophy is that even “human nature”, that commonly used justification for personal and social mores and ills, is given no truck and kicked off the playing field of acceptability.

Human Nature being kicked by Sartre.fw

Sartrean freedom allows no ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ or ‘maybes’; it is resolute, uncompromising and completely pure in its conception. Indicative, as his positioning of freedom is, in terms of his passion and sense of rightness, Sartre turns his attention to his other passion: resistance. Throughout the text of Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre refers time and again, with examples, to the situation that he and his fellow French citizens found themselves under German occupation.

In a possibly politically over-reaching section regarding the hopes he has for “the Russian revolution,”13 Sartre shows a deep understanding of how freedom runs deeper than political cause:

“Nor can I be sure that comrades-in-arms will take up my work after my death and carry it to the maximum perfection, seeing that those men are free agents and will freely decide, tomorrow, what man is then to be.”14

The acknowledgment that individual freedom of others means that his voice per se might well be ignored is testament to his understanding that the idea he had of freedom is stronger than his own voice that gave birth to it. Swiftly, following this understanding, Sartre starts to sharpen his claws and shows with extra-ordinary philosophic power precisely what he thinks of those who don’t accept their personal freedom. Starting relatively mildly he sharpens his blades and sets out his stall:

Knife Grinder.fw

“Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and others may be so cowardly or slack as to let them do so… Does that mean that I should abandon myself to quietism? No. First I ought to commit myself and then [en]act my commitment… Quietism is the attitude of people who say, ‘let others do what I cannot do.’ The doctrine I am presenting before you is precisely the opposite of this, since it declares that there is no reality except in action.”15

Sartre’s philosophy is, therefore, one of action and not acting simply won’t do. That, he makes clear, is “cowardly.”16 Obviously, the recent history in France focused his mind and one cannot help thinking that the indecisiveness of the two Andrés was possibly what he had in mind. Sartre didn’t stop sharpening his knives at this point, though, he had more to say, enact and attack.

Referring back to freedom and essentially the avoidance of it through acts of bad faith, Sartre outlined, alongside his thoughts regarding the adoption of quietism, two extremely cutting encapsulations:

“In the name of that will to freedom which is implied in freedom itself, I can form judgements upon those who seek to hide from themselves the wholly voluntary nature of their existence and its complete freedom. Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth, – I shall call scum.”17

Cowards and scum.fw

When studying philosophy one doesn’t readily come across such forthright judgements. However, as I hope to have possibly made clear in the discussion so far, Sartre was incredibly committed to his philosophy and that it should be a philosophy of action. Standing by quietly, denying responsibility, giving up due to excuses, or proclaiming one’s presence as necessary (as if put on earth by God to do his/her will) are positions to be fought against. For him, each of these positions came under the bracket of ‘bad faith’ and as such they run completely counter to how he thought life should be lead. And, he obviously was not going to be accused of being hypocritical due to being shy of letting everyone know just that. In Existence is a Humanism, Sartre made it very clear just what he thought of those in ‘bad faith’, even if paradoxically he never actually used the term itself in that text.


  1. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007 52.
  2. Sartre, J-P. ‘Paris Alive: The Republic of Silence’, The Atlantic Monthly, December 1944, vol. 174, no. 6, 39.
  3. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995,, 49.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 50.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., 54.
  10. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 23.
  11. Ibid., 28.
  12. Ibid., 34.
  13. Ibid., 40.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 40-41.
  16. Ibid., 43.
  17. Ibid., 52.

44. American History X


“Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”1
Dr. Bob Sweeney in American History X

Are we free or psychologically determined? Can we act according to our own thoughts or will we act according to a causal pathway or narrative that we have accepted as true?

Each of us, if we are honest, probably tell ourselves stories as to why we believe the things we do and act the way we do. We develop linear thoughts that take us from our experiences, as we see them, through to assertions about life and how we should live. Nothing wrong in that most would say. There is, arguably, however a falsity here because, effectively, we are moving from a statement to a judgement, from a fact to a theory, from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’. There is no real causal link in this chain, as those steeped in the analytic philosophical tradition would argue. One simply can’t move from ontology to moral theory.

But maybe I’m wrong because the experience is subjective and not actually objective or of an ontological nature at all. And here is the crux. For those who do assert their judgements based on their experiences there is, for them, a powerful sense that they are in possession of a truth, whether ontologically sound or factual correct it doesn’t really matter. It is just the truth as far as they are concerned. The problem is, though, that ‘as far as they are concerned’ is not very far at all. In fact it’s only really as far as they could see last week. And this is Sartre’s point. If we only recite and repeat the same stories to ourselves, then we are pretty much self-determining or self-narrowing and consequently chucking away our freedom. Breaking free from the stories we tell ourselves is immensely difficult of course if we have grown up in a dogmatic and claustrophobic environment.

Crowded Church.fw

One such environment is played out within American History X, the directorial debut from Tony Kaye, with screenplay by David McKenna, and starring Edward Norton alongside Beverly D’Angelo, Stacey Keach and Elliott Gould amongst many others.

Following the death of his racist father at the hands of black drug dealers, whilst on call as a fire-fighter, Derek Vinyard, played by Norton, appears to give in to repressed racist views in an emotional tirade when filmed by the local media after receiving news of his father’s death. The hard-working scholar evaporates at that instance and Vinyard allows his repressed side to come fully to the surface.

Egged on by Cameron Alexander, the neighbourhood White Supremacist leader of lost and angry young men, Vinyard becomes every inch the stereotypical shaven-headed, swastika-tattooed, neo-Nazi thug of nightmares. The only difference between him and his ‘Disciples of Christ’ cohort being that he is equipped with intelligence and becomes the leader or figure-head of the ‘D.O.C.’, with Alexander yanking the puppet strings.


With the murder of his father by a group of drug dealers, of whom the defining characteristic we are given is that they were black, Vinyard, one could argue, starts spiralling into racism foregoing the scholarly avenues that he was embarking on and hearing the echoes of his fathers words in Alexander’s grooming speeches of manipulation. The premise of psychological determinism and the pathway chosen by Vinyard are clearly set out for the viewer. The ingredients of Vinyard’s life result in an all too familiar, if extreme, final product. The story that Vinyard can tell himself is actually narrated by his younger brother, Danny, in the guise of an assignment, called American History X, given as an ultimatum by his black head teacher, Dr Bob Sweeney, who wants Danny to avoid following in his brother’s footsteps.

Told in a series of flashbacks, the story, as told by Danny unfolds in a series of tense and heightened scenes. Tony Kaye’s direction uses black and white film stock to show when Vinyard Snr. is consumed by White Supremacist conviction and juxtaposes this with colour when showing contemporary events and the family as it was before their father’s murder. The TV ‘interview’ where Vinyard unleashes is in colour because he has not become the skinhead fascist bully-boy at that point.


One of the flashbacks shows, in absolute graphic detail, the ‘heights’ that Vinyard reaches as he shoots one member of a black gang attempting to steal his father’s truck and executes another whom he has already injured. Without dwelling on the pure gruesomeness of the execution, we see Vinyard at his horrific neo-Nazi summit. However, just as the raw and self-righteous evil courses through his veins, as Danny watches in despair, the police arrive in a squad car to arrest him. The film’s iconographic imagery comes from this scene as an incensed Vinyard strides from brutality to sheer horror with eyes shining, as if in religious-like ecstasy. The conviction within him is palpable and screams through the stark night as we watch witness-like his unstoppable reeking of carnage.

Having reached the summit, the only way is down, right? Danny’s story continues as Derek begins a three-year prison sentence. Why only three years is not really made clear. We are only informed that Danny didn’t testified against him and left to surmise that the Los Angeles judicial system must have decided not to throw the book at him. In any case, the plot moves to the beginning of his incarceration and we soon find him grouping like-with-like. The ‘whites’ appear to accept him as one of theirs whilst they adopt the stereotypical posturing, snarling and sneering towards the ‘brothers’ and the ‘Hispanics’.


After a year, though, Danny relates that “things got complicated”2 for Derek. The ardent zeal of imprisoned Vinyard, still filled to the brim with White Supremacist ideology, can’t fathom why Mitch, one of his group of ‘whites’ (a term I have ascribed for convenience and not given in the film), seems to fraternize and “do favours”3 for the other groups concerning prison drugs. When Vinyard tries to discuss this apparent unconscionable attitude from Mitch he gets told “chill out on the preaching… we getting tired of it.”4 The final straw for Vinyard was the realisation that Mitch “was taking it from the Mexicans and dealing it out to his own people.”5 The symptom belied the cause for Vinyard because it dawned on him that Mitch didn’t believe in anything and neither did the rest of the ‘whites’.

Finding his peers lack of belief and conviction in ideology repugnant, Vinyard makes a point of separating himself off from them by deliberately ignoring them and sitting by himself in the canteen at lunch and playing basketball with Lamont, his laundry-duty co-worker, a ‘brother’. In prison gang culture, we are led to believe these are unpardonable sins. Vinyard consequently receives his punishment from the ‘whites’. He is raped in the showers and hospitalised afterwards.

Prison Shower.fw

At this juncture, Dr Bob Sweeney, Vinyard’s ex head teacher and Danny’s current one, arrives at the prison ostensibly to talk about Danny and give Derek some books. On his arrival Vinyard, lying on a hospital gurney with six stitches in him, breaks down and weeps in front of Sweeney. The mighty has fallen.

Sweeney confronts Vinyard on his anger and beliefs, and then proceeds to tell him about his own anger when he was younger:

“I know about this place. I know about the place you are in. There was a moment when I used to blame everything and everyone for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me, that I saw happening to my people. Blame everybody. Blame white people. Blame Society. Blame God. I didn’t get no answers, ‘cos I was asking the wrong question. You have to ask the right questions.”6

Vinyard, giving complete attention asks “Like what?”7 and Sweeney delivers the film’s pay-off: “Has anything you’ve done made you life better?”8 Vinyard shakes his head in moment of honesty and asks Sweeney to help him.


This is the crucial moment in the film because Sweeney says he’ll agree to help, but only on the condition that Vinyard doesn’t run away and leave his family once he is released from prison, in four months time. Instead Sweeney wants Vinyard to make sure that Danny doesn’t fall into the same trap as he Vinyard fell into.

Wrapped up in this tight jail scene, is the precise focus of Sartre’s thoughts on freedom. Sweeney, by intervening, in the manner that he did, demonstrates to Vinyard that he personally identifies with the root of Vinyard’s anger, but more than this that he, too, had to ask himself the question ‘Has anything I’ve done made my life better?’ By identifying in this way Sweeney shows Vinyard that he has reached rock bottom and, obviously, Vinyard has the visceral reality of being not only in prison to confirm that but also that he has been raped as well. Things really couldn’t get much worse for Vinyard. Sweeney’s message, then, acts to present an objectivity to Vinyard who, consumed by anger since his father’s murder, has only processed life through a warped subjective lens that he thought was the ‘true’ path of his life. By confronting Vinyard, Sweeney manages to push down Vinyard’s subjective defences, courtesy of mirroring them with his own past version, in order to present a brutal but needed home truth to Vinyard.

Accepting the truth of Sweeney’s question and the obvious answer that nothing he has done has made his life better, Vinyard’s immediate intention is to flee from his family in order to prevent them further pain by his presence. Now, the risk at stake here is whether Vinyard would just run away to continue taking all his subjective anger and beliefs with him in order to act them out in a new environment. Possibly, conscious of this risk but also more aware that running away from the problem never solves anything, Sweeney places his condition on Vinyard based on the hold he has on him regarding Vinyard’s request of help. Sweeney’s condition, ostensibly, is for Vinyard to stay and help his brother. However, by requesting this, Sweeney knows that Vinyard would have to face his family, his friends, his past and his future and heal the wounds he has caused rather than running away.

Running Away.fw

It’s a big gamble on Sweeney’s part because staying with the problem and not running away is hard. It would be far easier for Vinyard to pay lip service to Sweeney rather than actually acceding to his condition and seeing it through.

The Sartrean moment, though, comes when Vinyard realises the choice he faces and that Sweeney is right. He also realises that it is an extra hard choice because he has to get through the last four months of prison alive and then go back home to face the people whose lives he has so effectively poisoned. There is a huge challenge on both fronts.

Surviving prison becomes a practical matter when the ‘whites’ hate you and won’t protect you if the other groups want to enact their boredom or rage upon you bodily. Fortunately, for Vinyard it appears that Lamont has put in a word or two to the ‘brothers’ to leave him alone. Sweeney also helps by sending books for Vinyard to read, which enable Vinyard to become to all intents and purposes a “ghost”9 for those last four months. He even grows his hair and covers up his tattoos by wearing the prison uniform as it is intended rather than stripped to the waist in machismo bravado.

Reading in Prison.fw

Practical survival out of the way, the test of whether Vinyard can accept that he alone is the author of his life and that he has the freedom to reject his past self and establish a new one, comes once he is released. The real choice of taking the first train out of Los Angeles must still be there, however, Vinyard stays true to Sweeney’s condition and returns to the bosom of his family.

Breaking Sweeney’s condition would be relatively simple and non-consequential to Vinyard, however leaving Danny to become infected with White Supremacist values at the hands of Alexander and others is possibly more of a dilemma. Equally, though, one does get the sense from the film that Vinyard genuinely wants to change and reject his former life. To do this, of course, means that he has to absolutely believe that he is free to do this. The test of this freedom of choice comes via confrontation with the key players in his life, those with whom in his past he colluded as he lived and breathed racist ideology.

Seth Ryan, Vinyard’s close and extremely obnoxious family friend is the first to greet him outside the family. Cameron Alexander and Stacey, Vinyard’s girlfriend, are quickly re-introduced on the night of Vinyard’s release as he attempts to inform them both that he no longer wants anything to do with neo-Nazism. The news is not received at all well. Vinyard ends up punching Alexander, then having Seth pull a gun on him, with Stacey urging Seth to kill Vinyard, after they find Alexander in bloody heap.

Seth Ryan.fw

Vinyard manages to grab the gun from Seth and make his retreat out of the clutches of around fifty Disciples of Christ members having a ‘welcome back’ party in his honour at Alexander’s club.

The choice of slotting back into his shaven headed life is one that must have been alluring to Vinyard, rather than finding himself in the predictable position of alienation from those he once ran with. The freedom attained in prison, from Sweeney’s intervention, stays with Vinyard and he continues to try and get on with his new life and ‘saving’ Danny.

Right at the end of the film, Danny, in an all so typical nihilistic moment of gangland brutality, gets shot and killed in the school’s restroom by another sixteen year-old, a black youth with unfinished business on his mind from when Danny intervened on his bullying of a nerdy white kid. The film ends with Derek running past Sweeney to go into the restroom to hold his dead brother’s body in waves of understandable emotion.

Danny's death.fw

Now, the film ends here.

However, the film might well have ended differently. Another scene was shot, but never made it to the final edit. The extra scene was of Vinyard in front of a mirror, in the family bathroom, shaving his head. The imagery being that he would once again turn to neo-Nazism. Personally, I’m glad that this scene never got included because it would have dramatically changed the driving force of the narrative, from one that showed how someone can escape from deterministic forces by embracing freedom, to one where they can’t actually escape. So, in the final cut Sartre wins out. However, embracing one’s freedom is certainly not for the faint-hearted.


  1. American History X, directed by Tony Kaye. US: Turman-Morrissey Company, 1998.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.

43. Freedom


“Man is condemned to be free.”1
Jean-Paul Sartre

Having observed previously how Sartre introduced the idea of freedom into his philosophy, we could be ready to move on. However, maybe sensing that he didn’t quite nail the argument for freedom logically, as we saw earlier, Sartre stopped, tapped his fingers, scratched his head and reintroduced freedom from a different angle, the temporal.

As always, Sartre starts from a phenomenological position and uses his old chum consciousness as his point of entry. Consequently, it is of no real surprise to see him re-examining the conscious processes that occurs when Pierre was a ‘no show’ at the café. For Sartre, the realisation that Pierre was absent entailed a ‘negation’ of the causal chain of events, because within his consciousness of walking into the room and looking around there is no determined factor that introduces thoughts of Pierre. It is only when Sartre negates his present causally produced train of consciousness that he introduces thoughts of Pierre. For Sartre, this process of negation was his active instigation of a “break with being,”2 which, as we have seen before, was due to the coming forth of nothingness.


It appears that so far Sartre has purely retraced familiar steps regarding possibilities and has just got to the fun part of nothingness. However, embedded within his re-examination of how his consciousness conjures Pierre’s absence, Sartre begins to alter our focus as he starts to develop his ideas on temporality.

By looking at what occurs when one’s consciousness moves through a period of time, essentially to be able to state that there is a temporal difference between a thought in the past and a thought in the present, Sartre peered into the potential causal cleavage that can occur between these two episodes. And, by doing so, he discovered something he found intoxicating: “Freedom is the human being putting his past out of play by secreting his own nothingness.”3 So, Sartre once again discovered freedom in the process that Peter Caws describes as a “buffer of nothingness”4 separating one’s consciousness from something else. This time though, rather than the separation being created between, for example, my consciousness and the physical entities surrounding me, the separation is created between my present consciousness and my past consciousness. Sartre, consequently, has created an internal schism, as well as the external one we examined previously. The consciousness that one had in the past is complete and it is now in the present as an existent, a thing, a being-in-itself, and viewed as such it is separate from the consciousness of the present, which is being-for-itself. One’s old thoughts are finite much like a book, such as Dickens’ Great Expectations. However brilliant Dickens’ tale of Pip, Magwitch, Estella, Miss Havisham, Joe, Orlick and Herbert Pocket might be, those characters will never deviate from the plot or new ones be introduced. Dickens’ characters and plot are set in stone much as our past thoughts. Our present thoughts, though, ah, now that’s completely different. The sky’s the limit.

Sky's the limit.fw

The separation from one’s past consciousness by the coming forth of nothingness is of great boon to Sartre because it allows him to declare the presence of freedom. A declaration based on the premise that if one is separated from one’s past consciousness then one does not have to meekly follow the causal chain of events and submit to what is invariably construed as a set of pre-determined limits placed upon one’s possible thoughts. Instead, by severing oneself from one’s past consciousness one can become imbued with the full force of freedom because one is able to think anew without constraint.

Gregory McCulloch demonstrates how complete Sartre’s thinking was on this issue of freedom by extending Jean-Paul’s reasoning into thoughts regarding one’s future consciousness: “As far as my future is concerned, that is just a range of possibilities among which I alone can decide.”5 Consequently, McCulloch summarises “My past does not force me on, my future does not draw me forward. I am separated from both in a void of freedom.”6


Indeed, Sartre has created a “void of freedom” if we are separated from our past, our future and also, if we remember, those physical entities surrounding us. Freedom, as we can rapidly understand was absolutely pivotal to Sartre. In her treatise, Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, Christina Howells encapsulates the role Sartre gave to freedom with her opening statement: “As philosopher, dramatist, novelist, critic and moralist Sartre’s major preoccupation was, throughout his life, always the same – freedom, its implications and its obstacles.” 7

If we allow Sartre his intoxication with freedom, it is essential for us to understand what he meant by freedom. Anthony Manser, in Sartre: A Philosophic Study, simplifies things enormously by stating the following: “to talk of someone as free is only to say that nothing determines his actions.”8 Sartre’s lust for freedom becomes palpable in this encapsulation because we can see how neatly he has removed and eradicated all determining factors that once appeared to hold us in their grip. Whether they are religious, social convention, or even psychological, all determining forces evaporate under the new all giving power that is freedom, as provided for by Sartre. Any given action that we might perform is undertaken on the basis that there is no prior cause attributable and that we are entirely free to perform that action. As with some moments of discovery, a darker side may also appear and, to his credit, Sartre does not shy away from staring at his ‘invention’. Perhaps, somewhat similarly to Robert Oppenheimer, who poignantly confessed to Harry S. Truman “Mr President, I feel I have blood on my hands,”9 Sartre wanted to look deeply at the potential cost of his discovery. So, when reflecting later in Being and Nothingness upon the philosophical journey he had undergone, Sartre wrote of freedom in the following terms:

“I am condemned to be free. This means that no limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself or, if you prefer, that we are not free to cease being free.”10


Famously or infamously, depending on your perspective, the initial focus upon himself as the subject condemned became universalised in Existentialism and Humanism, where Sartre declared “man is condemned to be free.”11

Through this ‘dark’ acknowledgement of the power of freedom, I find that in some ways Sartre is, perhaps quite subtly, trying to persuade us of the validity to his argument in his use of the emotive term “condemned” when describing what he finds at the heart of the human condition. However, the emotive leverage of the assertion that “man is condemned to be free” is more often than not usurped by those possibly more politically minded. The phrase, as drafted by Sartre, appears to ignore any consideration towards those suffering under regimes of political oppression. The issue being, how can any such person be deemed to be free?

The criticism is a valid one of course, but also interestingly one that Sartre had considered within Being and Nothingness. As well as pushing the limitations of how far freedom’s reach could stretch, Sartre did also acknowledge that it cannot be infinite and that is bound by physicality. Thus, alongside freedom comes what he called its “reverse side,” a strange term given the title “facticity.”12 This is the concrete background of factual information upon which freedom is made manifest by an individual. For example, my ‘facticity’ has among its components that I was born in England, am the height I am, and have two children. For Sartre though, as we shall observe, there is an immense desire to not bow down and give up too easily before these factual elements in our lives: “The decisive argument which is employed by common sense against freedom consists in reminding us of our impotence.”13 The explanation he gave for such ‘impotence’ was a self-imposed resistance to change: “Far from being able to modify our situation at our whim, we seem to be unable to change ourselves.”14

Resist Change.fw

Consequently, for Sartre, the cause of such impotence and inability to change is built, more often than not, upon the notion of an over-reaching sense of “facticity”. And, Sartre illustrated such fallacious thinking through his graphic portrait of factually based resistances:

“I am not ‘free’ either to escape the lot of my class, of my nation, of my family, or even to build up my own power or my fortune or to conquer my most insignificant appetites or habits. I am a born worker, a Frenchman, an hereditary syphilitic, or a tubercular.”15

Essentially, the nub of Sartre’s argument rests here within his positioning of limits, because it is a matter of where the limits come from: a pathetic attitude of self-imposed conditions that hinder all prospect of success or a positive life embracing attitude based upon a deep conviction that one is free. So, it is very apparent that within the text of Being & Nothingness that Sartre wanted to make a ‘meta-level’ claim for freedom which solely regarded the attitude of the individual to their situation and not their surrounding reality.


As ever though, just when one is getting comfortable, Sartre darts ahead and throws something seemingly incongruous at our feet. This time he plucks something from psychology.

According to this new development, anguish is the awareness and realisation that one is free: “it is in anguish that man gets the consciousness of his freedom.”16 Placing anguish within an ontological framework, Sartre adjusts its position slightly to demonstrate its relationship to freedom:

“Anguish is the mode of being of freedom as consciousness of being; it is in anguish that freedom is, in it’s being, in question for itself.”17


Let’s make that a tad easier on the mind, and remove the ontological-speak.

Anguish is the ‘mode’ that one enters into when one has the conscious realisation of one’s freedom: it is the reaction to the magnitude of one’s ultimate self-responsibility. For some, and this is how Sartre’s logic unfolds, the enormity of their freedom is greatly troubling and a constant source of personal concern, because the acceptance of freedom also means the loss of any invoked strength-giving superior authority in the form of a deity, religion, or political system. Such a loss, if seen in this manner, can obviously give rise to anguish because the weak and the pathetic, an implicit and unavoidable judgement when following Sartre’s argument, have their various crutches removed and are left to their own ill-prepared devices. Although, it must be stated that also implicit within Sartre’s argument is the assumed acknowledgment that those who attempt to embrace their freedom, even though they might flail and stumble without their crutches on the plateau of anguish, are courageous for at least endeavouring to lead themselves rather than meekly follow someone else’s teachings or cite a catalogue of insurmountable obstacles preventing their freedom: situations for which Sartre holds particular contempt as we shall soon discover.

However, returning to anguish, per se, Sartre took it upon himself to clarify a possible point of confusion, and at the same time offer a powerful insight into the potential working of the human mind, when he compared anguish to the meaning of fear within a non-medical reconstruction of the term vertigo.


Vertigo, to some, is the fear of falling from a great height, which can be classified as a reaction to something external to oneself. In Sartre’s hands though, vertigo appears in a much more menacing form: “Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over.”18 Tapping deeper into the insightful vein he had unearthed, Sartre further explained the distinction between fear and anguish in regard to the relationships they have with freedom:

“A situation provokes fear if there is a possibility of my life being changed from without; my being provokes anguish to the extent that I distrust myself and my own reactions in that situation.”19

In some ways, therefore, one could argue that fear is the response to one’s life possibly being overridden; whereas anguish is the response to the realisation that one is ultimately in charge of one’s life and in all likelihood woefully underprepared. The latter, of course, being especially the case where philosophies of religion or political dogma have been the dominant paradigms. Consequently, if freedom is the ‘natural state’ of humans then anguish is its darker twin that lurks at every turn and gives meaning to the well-worn and much overused phrase existential angst.


Pausing momentarily, the following should really be borne in mind. By conceding that Sartre can bring his philosophy of freedom to the table, a positioning indebted to our ‘non-logic’ obsessed spirit of philosophical charity which allows ideas to be presented despite their awkward formation and starting point, we now find ourselves approaching the glimpse of ethics we seek. This is because leading on from his thoughts on anguish we shall observe the counterpoint he introduces under the guise of ‘bad faith’ which helps to establish the axis line of movement between the acceptance of freedom and its disavowal. The axis line being of course the horizon of responsibility along which one plays out one’s ethical life. Sensing that our goal is nearly present we must keep to our path however and not run too far ahead, because to appreciate the glimpse that Sartre promises we must understand the journey taken and consciously make every step rather than rushing and stumbling blind and confused toward our target. So, picking up from where we left off, we can see that anguish is a troubled emotion and one that in all reality is not easily embraced. Indeed, several of Sartre’s commentators have described in a variety of ways the ‘flight from anguish’ of those struggling with the demanding and ferocious bravery required by Sartre.

Howells writes that “Much of L’Etre et le Néant is concerned with a description of the ways in which men try to hide their freedom from themselves,”20 and McCulloch talks of “evasion” and “self-deception” when explaining that “we are always subject to anguish, but typically pretend not to notice.”21 Covering quite a few paragraphs to illustrate such self-deception, McCulloch, gives a particular piercing reflection to the so-called educated classes:

“Universities, British ones anyway, are hardly angst-ridden existentialist hotbeds. Rather, Sartre would say, they tend to be complacent and disingenuous sources of psychological determinism and similar evasive doctrines.”22

British Univerisities.fw

Leaving the distaste, but taking the point concerning psychological determinism, Joseph Catalano also reflects on this predominant method of anguish evasion from Sartre’s perspective. Quite neatly, Catalano summarises psychological determinism, whereby we “consider that our intentions are in fact determined by a causal series – that our seemingly free acts are really determined by environment and history.”23 For Sartre of course, as Catalano makes evident, such consideration effectively renders “ourselves as an in-itself, one of the fixed beings among many in the world.”24 The idea being that we are merely rudderless vessels floating on a sea of swirling activity caused by other entities: our existence being purely to be buffeted.

Lost at Sea.fw

Placing to one side such lifeless implications, Catalano examines Sartre’s thoughts on the problem of psychological determinism a little deeper and sees that the situation twists upon one’s perspective:

“Psychological determinism does not itself attempt to deny the original intuition (experience) that we are free… Rather, it offers an argument that this original intuition of freedom is deceptive, since it claims that we are actually determined in our decisions.”25

The point being that psychological determinism, as Catalano states, “attacks freedom not on the level of experience, but on the level of logic, by presenting to consciousness a purely possible hypothesis.”26 So, rather than seeing ourselves as beings freely choosing how to act, we understand ourselves and our actions to be determined by a causal chain of events that we become subject to and immersed within, without any hope of the freedom Sartre described. However, by presenting such an alternative hypothesis, or perspective on one’s situation, ironically a card is dealt in Sartre’s favour because he is logically at liberty to state that it is freedom that allows one to consider adopting an alternative attitude or hypothesis towards a given situation, even one strangely that debates whether we are free or psychologically determined.

Ah, irony. Some say it was invented by Socrates: another darting thinker. And still others say that if you make an anagram out of “Socrates” and “ironic” you virtually get “Sartre is iconic”. I say, let’s take a break before I let my own freedom run away with its self.



  1. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 34.
  2. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 27.
  3. Ibid., 28.
  4. Caws, P. Sartre, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, 70.
  5. McCulloch, G. Using Sartre: An Analytical Introduction to Early Sartrean Themes Routledge, 1994. 42.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Howells, C. Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, Cambridge University Press, 1988, 1.
  8. Manser, A. Sartre: A Philosophic Study, The Althone Press, 1966,117.
  9. Robert Oppenheimer to Harry S. Truman when they met on 25th October 1946, A Tragic Life: Oppenheimer and the Bomb, Arms Control Association, [viewed on 26th January 2018]. Available from: https://www.armscontrol.org/print/1851.
  10. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 439.
  11. Sartre,J -P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 34.
  12. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 481.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 29.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Howells, C. Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, Cambridge University Press, 1988, 16.
  21. McCulloch, G. Using Sartre: An Analytical Introduction to Early Sartrean Themes Routledge, 1994. 52.
  22. Ibid., 53.
  23. Catalano, J. S. A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness,University of Chicago Press, 1974, 74.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.

42. Nausea


“When you are living, nothing happens.”1
Antoine Roquentin in Nausea

The concept of nothingness, if one is allowed to call it a concept, is an ethereal notion that seems to slip, shimmer and slide from our grasp as we direct our focus upon it. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre introduces it through a description of looking for Pierre in a café where they have agreed to meet. Nothingness arises, though, because Pierre is not there:

“To be sure, Pierre’s absence supposes an original relation between me and this café; there is an infinity of people who are without any relation with this café for want of a real expectation which establishes their absence. But, to be exact, I myself expected to see Pierre, and my expectation has caused the absence of Pierre to happen as a real event concerning this café. It is an objective fact at present that I have discovered this absence… by contrast judgements which I can make subsequently to amuse myself, such as, ‘Wellington is not in this café, Paul Valéry is no longer here, etc.’ – these have a purely abstract meaning…”2

Wellington and coffee.fw

As we saw in the last post Catalano, gives other possible examples of nothingness occurring, such as when the person you are walking with suddenly isn’t there or when the horse you considered having a bet on, but didn’t, wins their race. I also suggested that when making decisions as to what to type next in an essay one also opens oneself up to nothingness.

The issue at stake is not absence per se, but rather that our very consciousness is not set or programmed to think in a certain way when presented with any given situation. Our consciousness is infinite in terms of how it can respond, reflect or cogitate upon the environment that we find ourselves in. And, perhaps one of the best literary examples of this facet of consciousness getting an airing is Sartre’s own work, Nausea.


Published in 1938, but written between 1932 and 1936, Sartre’s novel Nausea predates Being and Nothingness, which was published in 1943 and written in the early 1940s, and so can be thought of, arguably, as a literary pre-cursor to Sartre’s great tomb. Many of the philosophical themes in Being and Nothingness are given an initial outing in Nausea, however it is in Sartre’s treatment of his protagonist’s consciousness that we find our current interest.

The story is given a sense of truth with the opening “Editor’s Note”3 as Sartre’s situates his work within a tradition of writing that has the narrative prefaced, such as with the letters Dracula or Frankenstein:

“These notebooks were found among Antoine Roquentin’s papers. We are publishing them without alteration.”4

Old papers.fw

Immediately, then, one is guided to believe that the events that follow are real and not a work of fiction. This device helps Sartre to position what happens in the text as being grounded in reality as opposed to being something more like a fairy tale. “Once upon a time…” is replaced with a series of ‘facts’.

The next seed that Sartre sows concerns the reliability of the narrator. In most cases this seed blossoms to reveal the unreliability of said narrator. Sartre’s twist, however, is to unsettle us by having Roquentin question his own reliability and even sanity.

“The odd thing is that I am not at all prepared to consider myself insane, and indeed I can see quite clearly that I am not… Perhaps it was a slight attack of insanity after all.”5

Uncertainty and intrigue catered for, Sartre can proceed and give a bit more context to our character: “I for my part live alone, entirely alone. I never speak to anybody, I receive nothing, I give nothing.”6 It appears, then, that dialogue isn’t going to occupy much of the 250 pages. Within a few more pages the main theme, Roquentin’s nausea, arrives:

“Now I see; I remember better what I felt the other day on the sea-shore when I was holding that pebble. It was a sort of sweet disgust. How unpleasant it was! And it came from the pebble, I’m sure of that, it passed from the pebble into my hands. Yes, that’s it, that’s exactly it: a sort of nausea in the hands.”7

Stone in hand.fw

Other episodes swiftly follow. In a café, the face of Madeline, the waitress, induces an ‘attack’:

“Then the Nausea [Roquentin has officially named it now] seized me, I dropped on to the bench, I no longer even knew where I was; I saw the colours slowly spinning around me, I wanted to vomit. And there it is: since then, the Nausea hasn’t left me, it holds me in its grip.”8

In an almost pre-cognition moment, Roquentin makes a significant throwaway comment: “When you are living, nothing happens.”9 The full meaning of this comment, though, is left unexplained as we read further. Indeed, it is only by dwelling with the text that one can start to grasp at the hidden meaning. So as not to complicate things further by being oblique myself I will presume to interpret. ‘Living’, in this instance, means getting on with one’s daily life and habits. The normality of ‘living’ that we each create for ourselves or have thrust upon us is in some sense a lie. Work, meals, relaxation, reading newspapers are all activities that we layer over our existence. And, it is that existence that Roquentin is beginning to experience in his attacks of nausea. The existence that lies behind our stories, facts and understanding of the world starts coming out from beneath the glib self-assurance we each adopt in order to function ‘normally’ in the world. The cracks are showing for Roquentin and he begins to believe he is accessing real the existence of objects and people that surround us and that we profess to have calm dispassionate knowledge of.


After the nausea connected with Madeline’s face, Roquentin fixates on other faces and begins to push aside humanity and empathy in his gaze:

“On the opposite pavement, a gentleman who is holding his wife by the arm has just whispered a few words in her ear and has started smiling. She promptly and carefully wipes all expression from her cream-coloured face and takes a few steps blindly.”10

“Doctor Rogé has finished his calvados. His great body relaxes and his eyelids droop heavily. For the first time I see his face without the eyes: you might take it for a cardboard mask.”11

“Once a woman’s face took shape on a level with my shoulder.” 12

“I was not alone. A woman with a waxy complexion was sitting opposite me and her hands were moving all the time.”13

“I saw the fellow in the blue cape sitting in the same place; he had a huge pale face between two ears which were scarlet with cold.”14

There is slight dysfunctional and intermittent dialogue interspersed between these snapshots, however Roquentin’s detachment from his fellow citizens is very apparent as he regards them really as objects.

People as objects.fw

Just as in Being and Nothingness, a duality is demarcated which, in Nausea, is encapsulated by those ‘objects’ Roquentin comes into contact with and the ‘I’ of Roquentin. In his philosophy, Sartre formulates the latter as ‘Being-For-Itself’. So, switching to himself, after observing the others, who are cast effectively as objects or ‘Beings-In-Themselves’, Roquentin states:

“… I had always realized that: I hadn’t any right to exist. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant, a microbe.”15

His random popping up of out of the blue, strikes Roquentin as a significant realisation and, indeed, Sartre obviously thinks deeper on this in his later philosophy where he declares, “existence precedes essence.”16 The philosophic driving force being to nullify the claims of those suffering from religious preconceptions that their life has a purpose and that their divine creator has given them an essence. For now, though, we need to focus on Roquentin.

When thinking about the history he is writing on the obscure Marquis de Rollebon, a fictional character invented by Sartre who supposedly lived through the French Revolution, Roquentin develops the theme of his existence:

“Monsieur de Rollebon was my partner: he needed me in order to be and I needed him in order not to feel my being.”17

Marquis de Rollobon.fw

When working on his project, Roquentin recognises that as well as bringing Monsieur de Rollebon to life he distracts himself away from his own being, his existence. The activities of researching and writing preoccupy him and give him the ‘normality’ of a standard existence. However, the focus that Roquentin sees the relationship with is one where only one of them can be said to ‘exist’:

“I no longer noticed that I existed, I no longer existed in myself, but in him; it was for him that I ate, for him that I breathed… I was only a means of making him live.”18

A turning point comes when Roquentin states “The great Rollebon affair has come to an end”19 and by deciding to stop his work on Monsieur de Rollebon he forces an internal crisis: “he was my raison d’être, he freed me from myself. What am I going to do now?”20 Without his work on Monsieur de Rollebon, Roquentin is pushed back on himself with no distractions. Without Monsieur de Rollebon there is no hiding place whereby Roquentin can convince himself that he is ‘normal’, just chugging along with the rest of humanity. Instead, Roquentin is exposed. At first this exposure, or realisation, is a relief to be relished, “I exist. It’s sweet, so sweet, so slow. And light.”21 To no longer hide in the same shadows us the rest of us, but to see oneself and the world all around as existing comes to Roquentin as if an epiphany.


A change occurs however when Roquentin observes his own hand and starts to see it as crab-like and begins to realise that his new found awareness of existence doesn’t appear to have an off-switch:

“I exist. I think I exist. Oh how long and serpentine this feeling of existing is – and I unwind it, slowly… If only I could prevent myself from thinking!”22

Descartes cogito seems to swirl like a spell around Roquentin and cast him deeper into turmoil, which Sartre executes majestically by having his antihero go on a rampaging tour de force of babbling. However, just before the onset of incoherence, Roquentin announces the following to himself:

“I exist by what I think… and I can’t prevent myself from thinking. At this very moment – this is terrible – if I exist, it is because I hate existing. It is I, it is I who pull myself from the nothingness to which I aspire: hatred and disgust for existence are just so many ways of making me exist, of thrusting me into existence.”23

Given as a diary, Nausea relates day-by-day Roquentin’s experiences and, rather beautifully, after the babbling rampage, Sartre writes “Nothing. Existed.”24 as the sole entry for the next day, Tuesday. Those two words, written as two separate sentences show that Roquentin was still caught up entirely in the serpent of existence and that “nothing” else of note occurred.


I have to add that Sartre cannot have formulated his philosophic ideas on nothingness at this stage because the use of “nothingness to which I aspire”25 runs contrary to his later ideas on nothingness. In Nausea, nothingness pertains to Roquentin desiring to be ‘normal’ with the blankness of living an everyday life, such as he observes in others. As we can read, though, he is thwarted in this desire by the very act of thinking so that he is unable to arrest the swirl of existence around him.

On Wednesday the internal activity has quietened down and Roquentin is able to substitute something for Monsieur de Rollebon to fill his ‘life’. He has arranged to see his ex-girlfriend, Anny, in Paris: “In four days I shall see Anny again: for the moment, that is my only reason for living.”26

But how does all this relate to nothingness?

Starting with Roquentin’s ‘attacks’ of nausea, we find ourselves observing a person within their environment displaying what Peter Caws, in the previous post described as a “buffer of nothingness between us and the world.”27 Roquentin, whilst under the influence of those ‘attacks’ is not engaging in the real world in a ‘normal’ manner and, as Sartre understood, he had placed himself “out of circuit.”28 Roquentin’s nausea, as such, then becomes a display or an example of nothingness, just like Sartre’s fixation upon the absence of Pierre or Catalano’s unplaced bet on the winning horse.

Winning Horse.fw

Nausea is a manifestation of nothingness and it helps to highlight the infinite nature of one’s consciousness in how that consciousness might actually interact with objects and people in the world. We do not absorb, ponder or engage with the world according to set programs. This being the point Sartre develops as regards freedom, something we shall explore later.

Getting back to Nausea, though, nothingness is given a twist when Roquentin starts to see behind the veil of ‘normality’ and into the pit of existence because Sartre takes down the “buffer of nothingness” and somehow presses pause on Roquentin’s consciousness or, arguably, over excites it and temporarily at least breaks it. The ‘protection’ of Roquentin’s consciousness is disabled and he loses the inherent power within consciousness to process the world in its own way according to its rules, which might vary of course but are usually always there. The protection being nothingness and without it Roquentin is thrown into mental disorder and we are left watching him babble until nothingness returns because his consciousness has found a way to process the world again: “In four days I shall see Anny again: for the moment, that is my only reason for living.”


There are, I’m sure, psychological depths to be plumbed in a character such as Roquentin, however our task is to stick with the philosophical and perhaps give one further example of nothingness contained within Nausea: Anny.

Anny’s nothingness example is wrapped up in the way she used to process the world, such as when she was with Roquentin. As she reveals to him, it was all based around her childhood fascination with the choice of pictures used to illustrate Michelet’s encyclopaedic History of France. For Anny, the limited amount of illustrations meant that each one, depicting scenes from history, had to be specially selected over other possibilities and this meant that they were very rare and precious. The fascination in pictures then turned into a desire to emulate the preciousness of the scenes but in real life, which gave rise to her yearning for “perfect moments.”29 Her way of processing life, her nothingness, was to always be on the look-out for the possibility of creating a “perfect moment” which gave rise to her pressing need to transform any environment she was in with objects d’arte that could help set the scene. The problem in her relationship with Roquentin was that she never told him at the time about her desire to create “perfect moments” and what they meant to her.

American Gothic.fw

Interestingly, Sartre parallels Roquentin’s overload, where the loss of nothingness caused him to stare into the abyss of existence. For Anny, her loss of nothingness comes when she gives up on seeking “perfect moments”: “I live surrounded by dead passions.”30 Her renunciation effectively means that she is set just to exist from now on and she encapsulates this in the phrase “I am outliving myself.”31 Hope for Anny is dashed onto the floor like a smashed vase and she is destined to float from one place to another:

“’I travel,’ she goes on in a gloomy voice; ‘I’ve just come back from Sweden. I stopped in Berlin for a week. There’s a fellow who’s keeping me…’”32

Roquentin’s life almost appears positively rosy in comparison, especially when Sartre ends Nausea by having him think about writing a novel that would be “beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence.”33 Nausea perhaps?

Writing Novel.fw

Perhaps nothingness always finds a way to come back, even when it gets lost, overloaded or broken? Maybe Simone will also write a book. Did I say Simone? I suppose I meant Anny, just like I suppose I meant Roquentin rather than Sartre.


  1. Sartre, J-P. Nausea. Translated by Robert Baldick, Penguin, 2000, 61.
  2. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 10.
  3. Sartre, J-P. Nausea. Translated by Robert Baldick, Penguin, 2000, 8.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 10.
  6. Ibid., 16.
  7. Ibid., 22.
  8. Ibid., 33.
  9. Ibid., 61.
  10. Ibid., 69.
  11. Ibid., 103.
  12. Ibid., 105.
  13. Ibid., 106.
  14. Ibid., 114.
  15. Ibid., 124.
  16. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 28.
  17. Sartre, J-P. Nausea. Translated by Robert Baldick, Penguin, 2000, 142-143.
  18. Ibid., 143.
  19. Ibid., 142.
  20. Ibid., 143
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., 145.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 149.
  25. Ibid., 145.
  26. Ibid., 150.
  27. Caws, P. Sartre, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, 70.
  28. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 24.
  29. See Sartre, J-P. Nausea. Translated by Robert Baldick, Penguin, 2000, 204-205.
  30. Ibid., 207.
  31. Ibid., 206.
  32. Ibid., 216.
  33. Ibid., 252.

41. Nothingness


The eternal questions “Who am I?” and “What am I?” arise… regarding one’s identity, to reveal the Sartrean ‘non-answer’ that there is a gaping void at the centre of every one of us, filled only with the presence of nothingness.

So, let us remember that when we left Sartre in the previous-to-previous post he had just announced that the ‘appeal to infinity’ found within the philosophies of Spinoza and Hegel, to aid our understanding of consciousness, wouldn’t serve. Instead, Sartre introduced ‘Nothingness’ to get round the problem of the ‘appeal to infinity’ having an inherently reducible quality that acted counter to its purpose and caught infinity within the finiteness of a set phrase. The veil of ‘Nothingness’, consequently, lies before us to intellectually grapple with and apply our minds.

Rather enigmatically, Sartre stated “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”1 In some ways, it would be right to leave any inspection of this uniquely Sartrean term at this poetic statement. For us, however, there must be a deepening of our understanding of nothingness if we are to chase and catch the ‘glimpse’ of ethics that Sartre has enticed us with. Some commentators, such as Joseph S. Catalano have tried to bite off component elements from Sartre’s thoughts to deliver examples of where and how nothingness takes place. Others such as Arthur C. Danto, resist the urge to simplify in this manner and want to retain the complexity of Sartre’s thinking on nothingness because, as Danto states, “We are dealing with a piece of ambitious metaphysical architecture, not just a list of what there is.”2 However, almost counter-intuitively, I want to follow Catalano’s thoughts for the time being because I believe that in finding fault we might be able to find our own thoughts when exploring the challenge that nothingness presents. Consequently, I want to begin with one of Catalano’s ‘bite-sized’ chunks and examine a re-working he gives to one of Sartre’s well-known vignettes, that of Pierre’s absence from the café.

Les Deux Magots.fw

Rather than directly using the absence, Catalano simplifies the notion and makes it more universal: “while walking with someone in a crowd, I suddenly turn and perceive that the person is not there.”3 To Catalano this is a clear example of nothingness becoming manifest and appearing from the feeling of absence. Similarly, Catalano demonstrates how nothingness comes about from the feeling of regret when he describes the feeling one undergoes when the horse that one had previously resisted the urge to place a bet on actually wins the race. Further into his commentary, Catalano attempts to “anticipate Sartre’s discussion” to “consider the main characteristics”4 of nothingness and duly progresses his task by delivering his understanding of nothingness in what appears as a series of logical premises. Now, these are quite dry and lacking a certain poetic style contrary to Sartre, however, they are a useful attempt and do actually provide, if nothing more, a context from which to develop our own thoughts on nothingness.

Firstly, Catalano states: “There are two fundamental regions in which concrete nothingness is to be found: the world and the human reality.”5 Secondly, he writes “The human reality’s concrete nothingness is its consciousness.”6 These are relatively straight-forward statements with no real cause for concern even though, peculiarly, Catalano appears to be trying to ground nothingness with a physical attribute, concrete, which is possibly more than just strange and maybe indicative that there is a confusion present within his understanding of nothingness. However, with the next premise Catalano, I believe, demonstrates actual confusion because he takes Sartre into the realm of circular reasoning by stating “Consciousness, or awareness, is a concrete nothingness because consciousness is not perfectly one with itself or its ‘object’.”7 The problem of circularity comes about because Catalano places the dependency of nothingness upon the non-identity of consciousness within its bodily form. Whereas I believe Sartre was trying to understand the dependency the other way, i.e., the issue of non-identity comes about because of the presence of nothingness. Both Catalano and I cannot be right in this instance because that would give rise to circular reasoning whereby object A is dependent upon object B which in turn is dependent on object A.

Chicken and Egg.fw

Catalano’s statement therefore cannot be accepted as logically conditioned, but rather should be read as a presentation of properties for consideration when thinking about nothingness.

Where I think Catalano starts to get his exposition and understanding back on track however, is when he attempts to describe the ethereal or non-physical dimension that nothingness has by writing “concrete nothingness cannot be pictured”8 and alluding that it can only be approached. He also correctly, but somewhat stiltedly, surmises that nothingness becomes manifest when consciousness questions itself as to its own identity: an addictive and paradoxical line of thought that opens up possibilities, but contains no definitive answer.

Consciousness questions itself.fw

The eternal questions “Who am I?” and “What am I?” arise out of this line of thought regarding one’s identity, to reveal the Sartrean ‘non-answer’ that there is a gaping void at the centre of every one of us, filled only with the presence of nothingness. The important realisation that Sartre gestured towards with his thoughts on nothingness, and that Catalano at times inadvertently is helping to present, is that if we challenge ourselves with a little bit of persistence and stamina, ultimately the questions “Who am I?” or What am I?” do lead to nothingness. This is because, for Sartre, there is no majestic grand being or deity with a purpose for us. Plus, if we probe questions of identity hard enough in this knowledge then nothingness will stride in, alongside the varying concocted possibilities of what our essence could be that briefly emanate within our thoughts and then evaporate when the heat of our determined focus questions their truth.

For example, the possibility of answering “Who am I?’ with the reply “I am a Christian” is, for Sartre, absolutely not a given or pre-determined reply but one that has been chosen and therefore without truth as to being an essence in the way that it is declared. The declarative Christian in another mindset could easily have answered “I am a Muslim” or “I am a musician”. All answers are choices and there are no factual statements as to one’s essence, because there is no essence. The point being that, by the act of asking of a question which has different possibilities and actually admitting that we don’t know the answer, we bring forth nothingness; an impossibility for something with an essence.

Universl Mind.fw

Remember that, for Sartre, “existence precedes essence”9 as far as a being-for-itself is concerned, such as I regard myself.

The Sartrean matter at stake here is that when consciousness actually kick-starts itself into operation, and breaks free of any prescribed routes of thinking placed within it from dogmatic ideologies, and allows varying possibilities in terms of ideas, thoughts, and especially one’s own identity to occur, nothingness sweeps into play. And, such nothingness swirls around, emptying our consciousness of any predilections towards becoming a brute being-in-itself. For Sartre, nothingness can be seen as that which separates being-for-itself from being-in-itself. Indeed, I would almost go as far to say that when a dogmatic ideology has taken hold of one’s consciousness to the extent that one ‘knows’ all the answers to all the questions that one allows oneself to entertain, then there is a preclusion of nothingness, courtesy of the elimination of possibilities, which renders one a being-in-itself and one effectively becomes brute matter. Obviously, if the boldness of my statement is considered consistent within Sartrean thought then the position of the ‘know-it-all’ is something to be avoided at all costs, because it crystallises into brute matter that which should be beyond mere rock, table or glass and removes the very thing that makes one human: the ability for our consciousness to allow possibilities, which in turn is the well-spring of nothingness.

Human Brain.fw

Although, as Danto is quick to make clear we have to be careful because “nothingness is not an entity,” instead, he explains, “it is a kind of shadow which we cast rather than an antecedent vacuity that we discover.”10 Nothingness only becomes manifest by virtue of an operational consciousness, it is not ‘out there’ as an ontological presence with associated determining attributes. One cannot measure nothingness, or point towards it, or buy some.

As if in agreement with Danto, at this juncture, Sartre’s thinking shifts and there appears to be a decision made because there is a quite unexpected turn in his approach. The strictly phenomenological enquiry into the makeup of nothingness, it seems, is found to be insufficient to his philosophical needs. After stating “Man is the being through whom nothingness comes to the world”11 (which we could modernise to ‘humans are the beings though whom nothingness comes to the world’) and continuing with a phenomenological examination of nothingness per se. Sartre, instead, shifted his attention towards the implications of nothingness. The shift occurs, of course, within the guise of an ontological framework. However, where it leads is a place that feels at times as if Sartre has tricked us by a sleight of hand, or rather drugged us so that we awaken disorientated in a completely new environment; not necessarily unpleasant, but most certainly different to what we would have expected.


Sartre’s seemingly ontological gambit then, after his summary statement, “Man is the being through whom nothingness comes to the world”, was to ask “What must man be in his being in order that through him nothingness may come to being?”12 Perhaps, because Sartre ladled so thickly the touchstone of ontology, the word being, he sought to persuade his readers of his continuing ontological rigour? Within a very short distance of text, though, he seems to depart quite dramatically from ontology into a wholly other form of enquiry. That being noted, let us reserve judgement and follow his line of thought, even with a suspicions eye-brow raised as to his ontological credentials, because I believe that from this point onwards Sartre becomes at his most interesting and our goal, the glimpse of ethics, is dangled tantalizingly before our eyes.

Following his thoughts, with their acknowledged ontological smokescreen, from asking what must ‘man’ be if through him nothingness becomes manifest brought Sartre to an investigation of what it means for ‘man’ as a being to question being; which as we know is the setting for nothingness. For Sartre, this meaning took a unique shape. If, for example, I am the cipher for Sartrean exegesis, then when I question being by putting forward varying possibilities conjured from my consciousness on the subject of where to direct this paragraph, I at that moment hold up “a particular existent”13 (a chunk of being) to view it “as a totality,”14 as if I had pressed the pause button on my existence and everything else around to arrest life’s natural ‘cause and effect’ chain of events, whilst I reflect, as a demigod, before proceeding with my typing. Obviously, my typing is only an example of an action, I could indulge the inner superhero complex within each of us and examine the possibilities of becoming a masked vigilante crusading on behalf of a helpless community threatened by a terrifying crime epidemic and a corrupt legal system; possibilities come in many forms.

Masked vigilante.fw

However, as Sartre wrote, to place “a particular existent… out of circuit” in whatever manner is also to place oneself “out of circuit”15 as well. A situation Sartre poetically depicted as that where one has effectively “retired beyond a nothingness.”16 Such a retirement, Peter Caws described as a “buffer of nothingness between us and the world.”17 The intentionality of our consciousness, toward an object of being that we hold in question, consequently creates a ‘buffer’ of nothingness around us that separates us for that moment from the overwhelming dominance and physicality of the world in which we live. It is at this moment that I believe Sartre departed from ontology because he summarised and interpreted this sequence of events as freedom.

We should do well to note here that Sartre didn’t decide to choose contemplation, consideration, inspection or a myriad of other possible choices to describe the “buffer of nothingness” when an object is held in question. Instead, he chose freedom and, as we shall see, that choice was in all likelihood governed by a desire to steer in freedom’s direction rather than necessarily blindly moving step-by-step through a series of philosophical arguments. And, it is in that particular choosing of freedom as opposed to anything else that I believe Sartre gives a glimpse of what we are looking for. It is a fleeting did-I-just-see-that glimpse out of the corner of our eye, such as a cat darting past unexpectedly, where really we seem to sense more than see what has just occurred. Acknowledging, though, that our glimpse so far purely indicates an intention to pursue freedom we should note it and continue on.

Cat darting.fw

The pedigree which Sartre gave to this announcement of freedom comes not from a logical progression of his own thought, which as we have seen contained no hint of freedom within its relatively insular exploration of being and nothingness. Instead, Sartre looked to predecessors for the granting of credibility to his claim for freedom. Descartes, for example, was drawn upon, as if Sartre were merely strolling down well known and obvious pathways to his philosophic ancestor:

“Descartes following the stoics has given a name to this possibility which human reality has to secrete a nothingness which isolates it – it is freedom.”18


Realising perhaps the tenuousness of his link, Sartre later elaborated:

“What first appears evident is that human reality can detach itself from the world – in questioning, in systematic doubt, in sceptical doubt… This was seen by Descartes, who is establishing doubt on freedom when he claims for us the possibility of suspending our judgements.”19

Taken from what appears to be the philosophy of Descartes’ fourth ‘Meditation’, where discussion on ‘freedom of choice’ is contrasted to other ‘faculties’ such as memory or imagination and peppered by such phrases as “we act so that we are unconscious that any outside force constrains us in doing so,”20 Sartre was quite blatantly appealing to Descartes’ presumed philosophical authority to persuade us of his claim that freedom arises, and is created by nothingness, due to our separation from the daily physical grind of cause and effect.

Freedom from cause and effect.fw

The fallacy Sartre committed was that he argued by appealing to an authority, where the implicit justification for his argument, or conclusion regarding freedom, is given by our acceptance that Descartes’ philosophy on the subject of freedom was the ‘truth.’ However, recognising that such a justification might be weak, Sartre continued to appeal to other authorities such as Hegel, and then even Heidegger, Husserl and Brentano under such statements as “it is one of the trends of contemporary philosophy to see in human consciousness a sort escape from the self.”21 By so doing, Sartre appears to be effectively resorting to a line of persuasion that his thoughts follow a trend rather than being philosophically constructed. This is not really how one should argue if one wants to maintain philosophical rigour.

However, I am a great believer that just because someone argues incorrectly it doesn’t mean that their conclusion is necessarily erroneous. So, perhaps I am being too harsh on Sartre by highlighting the fallacy in his thinking. Especially given that I am actually greatly interested in where his thinking leads and genuinely desire to discover the glimpse of ethics he tempts us with. However, I do also believe that in examining the fallacy and being hyper-critical we can also discover why his project offers only a glimpse of ethics from within its dense and overgrown forest and doesn’t continue by striding purposefully into the open pasture of ethics.

Overgrown Forest.fw

My supposition is that Sartre was trapped within the bounds of his own system, a system built upon ontological and phenomenological principles which clasped him tightly to its framework preventing the escape he appeared to cherish. So, it is in some ways inevitable that he, at certain moments, argued fallaciously to catch the glimpse he desired. I also believe there was nothing wrong with where he was attempting to get to but only from where he started. Too many babies get thrown out with bathwater and we should not fail Sartre, with his apparent intention to reach ethics, by dismissing his thoughts on the grounds of logical fallacy. Instead, charity and benevolence should be our manner of conduct because we are after all interested in ethics and not just proving points of logical consistency. Consequently, we should return to Sartre’s thoughts and give him his head in asking “What is human freedom if through it nothingness comes into the world?”22 Lead on, darting Jean-Paul, we trust your intentions.


  1. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 21.
  2. Danto, A. C. Sartre, Viking Press, 1975, 39.
  3. Catalano, J. S. A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, University of Chicago Press, 1974, 51.
  4. Ibid., 63.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 64.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 28.
  10. Danto, A. C. Sartre, Viking Press, 1975, 56.
  11. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 24.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Caws, P. Sartre, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, 70.
  18. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 24-25.
  19. Ibid., 25.
  20. Descartes, R. A Discourse on Method, Meditations and Principles. Translated by John Veitch, Everyman’s Library, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1962, 115.
  21. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 25.
  22. Ibid.

40. The Third Man


“Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stop moving – forever? If I offered you twenty thousand for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”1
Harry Lime in The Third Man

Two-thirds of the way into The Third Man, Orson Welles makes his screen entrance as the very much alive, but presumed dead, Harry Lime and with Graham Greene’s blessing adds a powerful cultural summation to his character’s amoral outlook on life.

“In Italy, for thirty years, under the Borgia’s they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.”2

Harry Lime.fw

Immediately prior, a tight, tense scene is played out between Orson Welles’ character, Harry Lime, and Joseph Cotton’s, Holly (or Rollo in Greene’s text) Martins on the surreal Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park in the Russian zone amidst a war raged Vienna in 1949. Carol Reed, the Director, and his cinematographer, Robert Krasker, deliver the backdrop of height to add the required visuals to Greene’s packed and threatening dialogue between Martins and Lime as they size each other up after Martins’ has discovered the faked death of Lime and that his old friend is a Penicillin racketeer effectively preying on the lives of the innocent. The possibility of Martins exposing his fake death, whilst he hides in the Russian zone continuing to run his black market activity, motivates Lime as he attempts to turn Martins into his collaborator. Martins, though, wants to accuse Lime of what he increasingly understands is a pattern of shoddy, self-interested behaviour coursing through the history of their friendship; Lime’s relationship with Anna Schmidt, whom Martins believes has been left to fend for herself; and the hospital wards filled with Lime’s “victims”. Lime, though, tries to play on the friendship they once had.

“Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stop moving – forever? If I offered you twenty thousand for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. The only way you can save money nowadays.”3

Ferris Wheel Ants.fw

Martins, who earns his living by writing Westerns, throws Lime’s words back, “A lot of good money will do you when you’re in jail”. To which Lime responds with a caustic statement of fact, delivered with a challengingly raised eyebrow and knowing smile, displaying that he is more than a match for Martins’ argument, “There’s no proof against me, besides you.”4

The dialogue continues with Martins taking swipes at Lime and Lime showing that he has the upper hand, courtesy of a gun, whilst trying to ingratiate his friend of old by sharing his new world vision with him.

“Holly. What fools we are talking to each other this way. As though I’d do anything to you, or you to me. You’re just a little mixed up about things in general. Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, and I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans and so have I.”5

Harry and Holly.fw

Lime’s stance is obviously at odds with Martins, due to the latter witnessing for himself the children’s hospital, courtesy of Major Calloway wanting Martins to see the extent of diluted penicillin. Martins, with a sense of melancholy, tries a different tack in the face of Lime’s apparent casting aside of humanity: “You used to believe in God.” To which Lime replies:

“Oh, I still do believe in God, old man. I believe in God and mercy and all that, but the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here poor devils.”6

Then with a particularly malevolent half-opened eye, Lime asks, “What do you believe in?”7 only to follow with an instruction regarding the treatment of Anna if Martins is ever able to get her out of the mess that she is in with the Russian police investigating her papers.

Alida Valli.fw

These five minutes of electrifying dialogue from Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, light up the film to give a sense of urgency to the remaining twenty, which build into a Western-esque showdown in the sewers of Vienna. The motif is acted out though the gun slinging ‘sheriff’, Calloway, shooting but only wounding ‘his man’ after Lime shoots his ‘deputy’, Sergeant Paine. There is also a non-verbal exchange of looks between Lime and Martins that culminates in Lime nodding in resignation for Martins to end his life. His time has come, he is wounded, trapped and knows that his fate will be capital punishment for the shooting of Sergeant Paine, let alone his other nefarious deeds. A shot is fired and we see Martins walking back along the sewer out of Robert Krasker’s atmospheric and beautifully lit sewer mist. This time Harry Lime is, indeed, dead.

In the text, Greene writes a slightly different ending, which has Martins recounting the scene between Lime and him afterwards to Calloway. Martins follows the wounded Lime who, incidentally, had been shot by Martins not Calloway and finds his old friend whimpering on an iron staircase leading up to street level. Lime is too hurt to move and can only say “Bloody fool”8 when Martins bends down to hear him. It’s plain to Martins that Lime will not live: “Then he began to whimper again. I couldn’t bear it any more and I put a bullet through him.”9 Calloway remarks, “We’ll forget that bit”10 and Martins responds “I never shall.”11 The difference is subtle and in the text Greene seems to have Martins putting Lime out of his misery like killing a wounded animal. Indeed, Greene even alludes to this by having Martins reference that Lime’s “Bloody fool” last gasp might have been intended as a final swipe at the writer of cattle-rustlers “who couldn’t even shoot a rabbit clean.”12 The difference being that in Greene’s text Martins is given some volition of his own to respond to Lime whereas in the film, Carol Reed has Orson Welles nod towards Martins to shoot him as if it is Lime’s choice not Martins. In the film the control rests with Lime whereas in the novella, as always, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Harry shot.fw

Placing the Western and text versus film references aside, the ethically interesting element in The Third Man is in Lime’s behaviour and thoughts. The short and reaching attempt at profundity given in response to Martins question as to whether he still believes in God, reveals an internal processing by Lime as to how he justifies his abhorrent actions regarding Penicillin racketeering. Alongside the statement he made about “suckers and the mugs” there is a coherent narrative that he has constructed to enable him to sleep at night. He has built a belief system, which one presumes all con men do in regard to “suckers and the mugs”, in that everyone is free to take advantage of the other and that it is a battle of wits that will win in the end, with the victor being the non-sucker or non-mug. The premise being that they each have the freedom to act in whatever way they see fit and that society’s rules don’t apply. Lime takes such thinking to a new level.

The carnage wrought in Vienna by WWII, with the resultant chaos of zones policed by four different countries, each with their own rules and systems, and an interlinking sewer network that allows easy passage from one to the other, albeit illegally, appears to be the perfect set-up for a black market to thrive.

Sewer entrance.fw

Lime, presumably, witnesses this state of affairs emerging and, being a wheeler and dealer of old, works out how to maximise his advantage. The problem being that he is edged ever onwards by the circumstances and his own greed to make choices that he then has to live with. Faking one’s own death and then continuing to live and run one’s black market business in the same city is not a usual occurrence. The reason for faking the death being that the British police, in particular, in the guise of Calloway, played by Trevor Howard, were ‘on to him’ so that Lime could effectively feel Calloway’s men breathing down his neck and their hands posed to ‘collar’ him around every street corner. The choices Lime had must have considered were to hand himself over, fake his own death, leave the city, or stop all activity. The allure of making ‘easy’ money must have prevented him from leaving or stopping, likewise giving up and owning up would not have sat well within his mind-set. A mind-set that would have rationalised that everyone else is on the ‘make’ so why shouldn’t he, especially if the money was easy to make. This train of thinking, though, has a major obstacle to overcome. People are getting sick and dying due to his ‘trade activities’. Now, Lime isn’t stupid and knows that he can’t simply shrug off such consequences. Instead, he has to rationalise, as he always would have done.

As we have seen, to Lime the lives of his fellow Viennese citizens become reducible to ‘dots’ when seen from far away and endless suffering when regarded close up, which leads him to state “the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here poor devils”, when confronted by Martins. Interestingly in this scene, there is a slight difference in the novella text by Greene, as opposed to the film scrip. In the text, Lime has the line “I’m not hurting anybody’s soul by what I do” in-between “Oh, I still believe, old man. In God and mercy and all that” and “The dead are happier dead…”13

Holly and Harry.fw

Such thinking demonstrates a belief system that has sought to work through the implications of his actions. However, to take the line that one isn’t hurting their souls when one is in fact bringing about their death is belief system that dictators, serial killers, ancient crusaders, past generals and modern jihadists take. The ‘righteous’ beliefs of anyone should never involve the justification of murder, collateral damage, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, a give-me-enough-men attitude or blithely thinking that their souls will be fine. Other people’s lives are not for anyone else to decide upon. To think otherwise is to be ethically bankrupt, a position that Lime has found himself in and that Calloway wants to imprison him for, whilst Martins is coming to terms with it and Anna is possibly ignoring it.

There is a Sartrean issue here, because it could be argued that Lime accepts his situation as being “condemned to be free”14 and pursues “existence precedes essence.”15 He does this by creating his own essence rather than letting anyone else, or doctrine, impose an alternative essence upon him. Lime, it could be argued, can be seen as the perfect existential antihero, a moral nihilist operating in an amoral environment.

The sewer.fw

This is how Lime could be seen and if we take that line of thinking he then acts to highlight the Sartrean issue that freedom doesn’t necessitate ethics.

As we saw in the last post, freedom, that hard fought for treasure, pursued by Sartre through the quagmires of ontology and phenomenology, has no natural or logical partner in ethics. That one might be free does not mean that one might be ethical. Lime’s behaviour epitomises one who seems to embrace everything about Sartrean thought regarding being condemned to be free, so therefore act accordingly and do whatever you want. And, if we push Sartrean thought a little further, in Lime’s case, we can see that Lime could be the ultimate Sartean antihero. By adopting a belief system, Lime ensures that he can come into the bracket of Being-for-itself because he is positively proving that his consciousness is infinite rather than finite. The sheer infinity of what we might be able to believe in demonstrates our status as Beings-for-themselves as opposed to the brute Being-in-itself which has no consciousness and is thereby finite.


Lime, then, scores pretty highly on the Sartrean model of antihero-ness. The problem is, of course, that by being infinite and free, in a way that Harry Lime appeared to think and behave, ethics becomes lost. And, contrary to simplistic readings of Sartre this is a problem to Sartre. There just is no way on earth that Sartre would have been happy and content with the epitome of his philosophy culminating in a character like Harry Lime. The truth of the matter, though, is that many people have assimilated Sartre’s thoughts in this manner and have been content themselves to arrest their thinking on Sartre at this point of moral nihilism. The difficulty is in finding a way beyond Sartre and his exemplar Harry Lime to catch a glimpse of the promise of ethics that Sartre suggested would be the focus of his work after Being and Nothingness.

The glimpse.fw


  1. Greene, G. ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, Collector’s Library, 1963, 119.
  2. Orson Welles attributed addition to Graham Greene’s film script for The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed. UK: British Lion Film Corporation, 1949.
  3. Greene, G. ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, Collector’s Library, 1963, 119.
  4. Additions to Graham Greene’s film script for The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed. UK: British Lion Film Corporation, 1949.
  5. Greene, G. ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, Collector’s Library, 1963, p. 121, with slight additions from the film script for The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed. UK: British Lion Film Corporation, 1949.
  6. Greene, G. ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, Collector’s Library, 1963, p.121, with slight additions from the film script for The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed. UK: British Lion Film Corporation, 1949.
  7. Addition to Graham Greene’s film script for The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed. UK: British Lion Film Corporation, 1949.
  8. Greene, G. ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, Collector’s Library, 1963, 132.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 121.
  14. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 34.
  15. Ibid.