a man amidst mankind: back again to dasein

a man amidst mankind…

That is the paradox, right? I am an individual…a man; yet, in turn, I am but one of 6,500,000,000 additional men and women that constitutes what is commonly called “mankind”. So, in what sense can I, as an individual, grasp my identity as separate and distinct from mankind? How do I make intelligent distinctions between my personal, psychological “self” [the me “I” know intimately from day to day], my persona [the me “I” project – often as a chameleon – in conflicting interactions with others], and my historical and ethnological self as a white male who happened adventiously to be born and raised to view reality from the perpective of a 20th century United States citizen?

How does all of this coalesce into who I think I am? And how does this description contrast with how others grasp who they think I am? Is there a way to derive an objective rendering of my true self? Can I know objectively who I am?

No, I don’t think so.

Identity is ever constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed over the years by hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of variables—some of which we had/have no choice/control regarding. We really are “thrown” into a fortuitous smorgasbord of demographic factors at birth and then molded and manipulated as children into whatever configuration of “reality” suits the cultural [and political] institutions of our time.

On the other hand:

In my view, one crucial difference between people is the extent to which they become more or less self-conscious of this. Why? Because, obviously, to the extent that they do, they can attempt to deconstruct the past and then reconstruct the future into one of their own more autonomous making.

But then what does this really mean? That is the question that has always fascinated me the most. Once I become cognizant of how profoundly problematic my “self” is, what can “I” do about it? And what are the philosophical implications of acknolwedging that identity is, by and large, an existential contraption that is always subject to change without notice? What can we “anchor” our identity to so as to make this prefabricated…fabricated…refabricated world seem less vertiginous? And, thus, more certain.

Is it any wonder that so many invent foundationalist anchors like Gods and Reason and Truth? Scriptures from one vantage point or another. Anything to keep from acknowledging just how contingent, precarious, uncertain and ultimately meaningless our lives really are.

Or, of course, is that just my foundation?

Do we really need certainty? Do we really need to “know” who “we” are as “individuals”? What does that even mean? The issue becomes only as problematic as our problematizing of it.

What are you? A being, capable of experiencing in many different ways. Why do you need a foundation? For what? To pretend you are something “solid”, like a rock, or something “consistent”, as if you were outside of time and unchanging? Loss of these sort of needs leads to freedom to just be what you are, as you are. The philosopher has no need for contriving “foundations” or “certainties” of personality/identity; the philosopher lives as he/she is, that is all.

Maybe I’m different, but I have no need to create a “self-image” based on anything, no need to view myself in any certain way or conform to any archetype or brand. Yes at times I present myself in a deliberately concealed manner, but when I do I am aware of it and aware of why I am doing it. Doing so does not change “who I am”, because I do not confuse myself with the partial view of myself I am letting others see. I am what I am, I experience what I experience, I think and feel what I think and feel. Others may act like robots or actors in a play, performing a role for an audience. Maybe that is their self-awareness, but it is not mine.

So what is your “foundation”?

I would say we are predisposed – mentally, emotionally and psychologically – to feel certain about the things we do. I say this because so many folks invariably are. It’s just a matter of what they predicate this certainty on. Is it their “upbringing”? Is it God? is it Reason? is it nationality? is it ethnicity?

And is this not invariably rooted in historical eras and cultures? And in the particular experiences lived through by actual flesh and blood individuals?

But some come not to feel this certainty. The nihilist, for one.

But this particular nihilist recognizes there are in fact some things I can be certain about. If only – re Hume – “for all practical purposes”.

But there are any number of things “I” cannot be sure of.

Basically, I agree. But, again, this point of view is, apparently, in the minority. On the other hand, being “what you are, as you are” is also embedded – problematically – in dasein. The question then becomes, “using the tools of philosophy are there behaviors I can choose more wisely”?

Well, I am not like you. Or, rather, I do not perceive myself as being like I perceive you to be.

You seem rather certain of your Self here. I do not feel that way about my own. Over and again, when put in a situation where I have to choose between conflicting moral and political narratives, I feel ambivalent emotions and think ambivalent thoughts. There does not seem to be a way that “I” can anchor my “self” to any one position. And I recognize that had I been born in a different time and place I might think and feel quite differently from how I think and feel now. “I” [and its value judgments] is ever rooted in contingency, chance and change.

And, even were I to feel grounded in a more solid sense of self, I would still bump into others equally convinced of this—yet embracing conflicting and contradictory moral and political values. And philosophy is of limited value here in resolving these age-old conflagrations.

existentialism. nihilism. But only in the manner in which “I” – as dasein – have come to understand them. And that is always and ever open to reconstruction.

Yes we are very much predisposed to this sort of need for psychological certainty. But that is not an argument for clinging to such certainties. Nor is it an argument against freeing ourselves from such certainties.

There are others than the nihilist who have moved beyond this need for certainty. For example, those who have moved beyond nihilism.

Hume and I are talking about two entirely different things here when we speak of “certainty”. Ascending the rungs of our self experiencings brings us into realms where certainty is poison and death; lower realms require generating more certainty in order to function correctly, but even here this certainty is never absolute, never need be dogmatic.

So what? You are not a god nor a perfect or infinite being, why would you expect yourself to be free of things you cannot be sure of? Having many things we cannot be sure of is a wonderful halmark of our manner of existence, of our being alive. Uncertainty and the unknown plays as direct and potent a causal and supportive role in our psychology as “certainties” and “knowledge” do.

Yes it is. So what?

There are varying types of utility, some of which are poison to others.

I have found that only when I have rid myself of need or desire to anchor myself to any one position am I free to see the situation as it is, and come to an enlightened perspective on it.

So you think that because we contain contradictions and conflicting values within ourselves that we are not “grounded in a more solid sense of self”? What if holding conflicting values and contradictions is an essential part of our sense of self? What if the self is composed of such oppositions? What if the idea of a “single unified solid self” is only a fantasy that doesn’t conform at all to the real way the self is put together?

Yes that sounds good, and it seems you are where I once was myself. For what it’s worth, I think you’re on the right track :slight_smile:

But it is an argument that very, very few people ever really probe in depth. There are literally millions upon millions of folks on the planet who barely put a dent in the existential narrative they learned as children regarding these things. They will go to the grave thinking more or less as their parents did.

In other words, the idea that one largely views the world as dasein is simply alien – or even inconceivable – to them.

And out in the real world – the world that revolves basically around subsisting from day to day – there are now fully 3,500,000,000+ people who live literally on $2 a day or less. This sort of “philosophical” speculation is not something relevant to them at all. They basically leave such matters to the folks who claim to mediate between them and God.

True, and, in here, these are the folks I am most curious about. Those folks, in other words, who acknowledge the nature [and the importance] of dasein and yet are somehow able to transcend nihilism. I am not able to myself.

Given what can be – in any particular individual’s life – a highly problematic relationship between the past, the present and the future, each ascent and descent must rely on variables like memory, contingency, context, fortuity and the like. What some might see as certainty here I do not. Although, to be honest, there is always the possibility we are talking about two very different things here.

For me:

…there are any number of things “I” cannot be sure of.

For you:

I don’t expect this. On the contrary, “contingency, chance and change” follow us from the cradle to the grave. It’s just that some lives are more uneventful than others. And, when we are not certain, the choices we make can be catastrophic. But, perhaps, not nearly as catastrophic as the choices others make in being certain about something no man or woman can really be certain about. We see this all the time in the consequences meted out by the religious and ideological minds. And, of course, by the minds of nihilists. Everything is always situated out in an enormously complex world.

You seem able to say “so what?” to things I long ago stopped underestimating.

But, again, much that we impart in the words we exchange here is rooted in the actual experiences we have had. And, because of that, what might give me pause [or even stricken me] another will simply shrug off.

Or even revel in.


You seem rather certain of your Self here. I do not feel that way about my own. Over and again, when put in a situation where I have to choose between conflicting moral and political narratives, I feel ambivalent emotions and think ambivalent thoughts. There does not seem to be a way that “I” can anchor my “self” to any one position. And I recognize that had I been born in a different time and place I might think and feel quite differently from how I think and feel now. “I” [and its value judgments] is ever rooted in contingency, chance and change.

As dasein, do we ever really see most things the way they are? Especially things that revolve around conflicts with others. For example, some listened to President Obama’s speech last night and thought he certainly grasped the economy “the way it is”. Others, however, hear the very same words and conclude he does not really grasp the situation at all. And, how I reacted to it as a radical liberal, bespeaks a context entirely at odds with all the talking heads I listened to in the corporate “media industrial complex”.

And after one has thought about things like this [or the complex relationships in their personal life] and rids oneself of the need or desire for certainty, they are still forced to choose.

You argue that an enlightened perspective can come from this. And, if it has for you, great. But it never really has for me. All I ever see are uncertainty, ambiguity and a convoluted sense of confusion. Especially when the stakes seem at their highest.

In my view, what we contain are individual perceptions of contradiction and conflict. And these perceptions are rooted in all that I argue above. Thus, what we see as contradictory or conflicting contexts, others do not. And all we can do is butt heads with arguments that are equally reasonable given contradictory and conflicting premises that, philosophically, can never be reconciled or resolved. Or, rather, have not been so far.

One need but note any particular moral or political fracas and start in on discussing it from contradictory or conflicting points of view.

It is then that dasein and the limitations of language most clearly reveal themselves. Or they do to me.

Yes this is true. But does this bother you? I accept this as a fact of life, as humans are presently in this world. Most people just don’t care about truth, most aren’t curious or motivated by honesty, self-discovery or self-empowerment. Most will shy away from questioning their narrative because it is painful and, at first, there seems almost nothing to gain by it. But I am not at all bothered by this fact, yes it is tragic, but this situation is also natural given the circumstances as present state of the human species. I see the bigger picture.

Yes, inconceivable.

Yes very true. This is indeed tragic. But what are you going to do about it? Are you responsible for the evolution of the entire human species? The sort of evolution and maturity that would be needed for this situation to significantly change for the better is still a very long way off, and rightly so. After all Rome wasn’t build overnight. Evolution occurs over long periods of time, we can’t get impatient or we will drive ourselves crazy with despair.

Can I ask why, in your view, you are unable to transcend your nihilism? If you imagined for a moment that you were able to transcend it, what do you think this would be like?

Yes I certainly (no pun intended) agree.

It is not because I am underestimating them that I am able to say “so what?” to them, it is because I have not underestimated them, rather I have spent a lot of time with them and have come to more practiced and comprehensive perspectives on them, one’s situated in far broader contexts of meaning and value. Such a comprehensivity of mind is necessary to cultivate a context in which we are to attempt this sort of drastic and often despairing philosophy of truth, otherwise the potency of the objects we are accessing can overwhelm us (but once context is achieved and distance is made possible, perspective follows. One cannot weigh a star unless one is a God, so to speak, not without getting crushed…).

True, we are all different in how we approach, or do not approach, these experiences.

We see things the way that we see them. This does not imply noumena or the impossibility of knowledge, nor does it imply objective reality or certainty. The labels and language we use to frame this issue become problematic if we allow them to set the terms of the experience itself. Language sets “is” “are” “the” up against truth as experience by presupposing as assumption of conditions something that is not itself a part of our experiences.

Forced to choose what?

As for conflicts with others, such as your example of politics, I have found it possible and useful to transcend the oppositional nature inherent in these ideological “struggles”, to raise the issues our of the relative context of these binary sides and thus allow a Hegelian sort of synthesis to arise, this really means that a new broader and higher context has been established wherein understanding of all “sides” as well as the discontinuity or overlapping of these sides all becomes mutually apparent. Politics is a great example where philosophy in practice can yield wonderful and practical results.

Maybe you just haven’t spent enough time with it yet. These sort of insights are not created overnight.

I do not try to reconcile or resolve these philosophical notions with others, I only do so with myself. Perhaps you are approaching it as if you need to find agreement with others in order to reach truth in these matters; if so, I would argue this is very much the wrong way to go about it.

Yes they are revealed in this sort of conflict, but this is the beneficience of this conflict, its value to us. The world reveals what presents itself as problematic to us, through us, and then it is within ourselves that grand reconciliations and syntheses of understanding can be forged, not without tremendous time and effort, of course.

But: The more folks there are who think like this the more likely it is that those who own and operate the global economy will be able to sustain this profoundly political economy indefinitely. And, again, it is a world in which three and a half billion men, women and children merely [or barely] subsist from day to day. It is also a world of mass starvation and mass murder. It is, in short, a profoundly conservative world when so many folks do not really question why things are the way they are and not some other way.

Of course, “some other way” – fascism, communism, jihadism etc. – can make things even worse, true. But then I am, admittedly, rather cynical here. And yet nothing will change at all if large chunks of the world’s population never come to really question who they were indoctrinated to be.

Personally, I came to be most bothered by it after the year I spent in Song Be, South Vietnam. My whole understanding of how the world works changed. So, these things are always rooted in our own individual experiences, of course. And, thus, in no way am I suggesting others are less sensible than me just because they think about these things differently. Even as an existentialist, I would never argue there is only one “authentic” way to react to events around us.

Instead, I note the manner in which I have come to think about it and hope there are others who might come to think the same way. Acknowledging always that this may well be for the better or for the worse.

Because my rendition of nihilism is rooted in a world without God. And, if there is no God, there is no omniscient point of view. And, without an all-knowing vantage point, mere mortals can only come to view the world subjectively as dasein. Meaning that, as dasein, they do not have access to universal moral and political truths. This then becomes a world ruled by the “law of the jungle”, by Nietzsche’s Ubermen or by those who embrace the ever conflicting moral and political values regarded as the most rational and ethical.

Or, of course, the truly amoral folks who embrace one or another rendition of realpolitik.

And, in turn, everyone will always approach this with profoundly conflicting intentions and motivations.

Isn’t that pretty much the world we live in? And I don’t really see it changing at all. So, to the extent I can champion “moderation, negociation and compromise” in a democratic context propelled by Popper’s “open society” and the rule of law, is the extent to which my contribution is made.

Again, personally, I have come to believe [or accept] that the political economy that rules in “the West” today may well be the best of all possible worlds. To paraphase somebody [Churchill, I think], “it is the worst economic system—except for all the others.”


You seem able to say “so what?” to things I long ago stopped underestimating.

The meaning of this is difficult for me to grasp however until it is situated out in the world and actual experiences are related.

To wit:

[i]…much that we impart in the words we exchange here is rooted in the actual experiences we have had. And, because of that, what might give me pause [or even stricken me] another will simply shrug off.

Or even revel in.[/i]

And, as you note:

True, we are all different in how we approach, or do not approach, these experiences.


But: The way in which we see things that conflict with the way in which others see them may or may not be open to resolution. It is this distinction that most interest me. What knowledge can be garnered to accomplish this? And, what knowledge is countered by additional knowledge that allows both/all sides [in a particular conflict] to make reasonable arguments? For instance, arguments on both sides of the stem cell debate can be embraced as reasonable. Then we must ask: is there an argument able to be articulated that demonstrates one side’s position to be the most rational?

I don’t believe there is. But that can only be another way of saying that personally I have not come upon this argument; and not that it doesn’t exist. But it still does not exist for me until I hear it.

Yet the true exasperation revolves around different folks insisting they have heard the optimal argument. But it conflicts mightily with the “optimal arguments” of others. Then what? We have no philosophers [or scientists] able to settle it once and for all. And this is the case regarding hundreds and hundreds of issues.


…after one has thought about things like [Obama’s speech…or the complex relationships in their personal life] and rids oneself of the need or desire for certainty, they are still forced to choose.

They are forced to choose something given, “the agony of choice in the face of uncertainty.”

You then suggest:

Can you give an example of this regarding a moral/political conflict we are all familiar with? As for myself, rather than transcend the “oppositional nature” of these disputes, I note that opposition itself is inherent in them. And we have to acknowledge there will always be conflicting points of view because there is no way to resolve them. Thus we should consider adopting “moderation, negociation and compromise” in as democratic a political configuration as is practically possible in a world where wealth and power will almost always prevail with respect to bread and butter issues.

The problem with Hegel, of course, is that the final synthesis seems to end with him. It doesn’t prompt just another thesis and antithesis. And philosophy is relevant here [to me] only to the extent it embraces some rendition of pragmatism.

I spent nearly 25 years in various radical, left wing political organizations. And, while there, even when I was able to come to grips with the philosophical implications of these conflicts, many others would grant me respite only to the extent my conclusions overlapped with theirs. Unfortunately, most folks are still intent on embracing the idea that someone’s point of view is always wrong because someone’s point of view is always right. Their own by and large.

My own personal hell often revolves around my [current] conviction that [as a nihilist] even though I might think I am right about many things, I know this can only be a reflection of dasein. In other words, it can never be grounded in a point of view whereby I march triumphantly into a venue like this and win eveyone over to The Truth.

Consequently, people become exasperated with me most – more often than not – not becasue I don’t share their own point of view but because I keep insisting we can only have points of view. Psychologically, they simply refuse to believe that this is true. Why?Because, psychologically, they don’t want it to be true.

More on the problematic nature of human identity:

Bob and Barry are brothers. As a young child, Bob is in a plane with Mom and Dad and the plane crashes near a remote Montagnard village in Vietnam. Mom and Dad die but Bob survives and is raised by the Montagnards to be one of them. Meanwhile 25 years later Barry has managed to finally tract his brother Bob down. He learns the Montagnard langauge and arranges to meet him. Barry was raised by his Aunt Jean and Uncle John who are Wall Street investment bankers. He is about to follow in their footsteps.

Can you imagine their conversation as they exchange “realities”? Which set of value judgments is closest to “the truth”? Which is the more “authentic” or “progressive” or “rational” or “moral” self?

What prompts this speculation is the film The Emerald Forest. I just watched the DVD again this evening.

Something like the above actually happened to a boy who was kidnapped by an indigenous tribe in the Amazon Rainforest. It was dramatized in the film. The father tries to track the boy down over and again; finally he finds him as a young man and is ready to take him home. But in the end he lets the boy stay. He realizes this is the only world the boy has known. It is a world the boy loves with a family and a community he loves in turn. It is made clear that his “primitive” identity is really no better or no worse than the “modern” one he would acquire back in New York City.

Isn’t “I” just a particular existential contraption we all construct in different ways in different historical and cultural contexts?

And what has always intrigued me is this: what can philosophy tell us about “I”? Is there a way in which to understand human identity “optimally”?

As many of you know, few things fascinate me more—philosophically—than the manner in which we come to acquire, apprehend, articulate and then act on a “sense of self”. Why do we understand ourselves [and the world we live in] one way rather than another? How do we account for the many ways in which that can change [or has already changed] profoundly over the years? Why do people have such a difficult time communicating this to others?

So, when I bump into [or reread] a passage that probes this very thing I like to pass it along to others.

This is from Bryan Magee’s book Popper:

Before we as individuals are even conscious of our existence we have been profoundly influenced for a considerable time [since before birth] by our relationship to other individuals who have complicated histories, and are members of a society which has an infinitely more complicated and longer history than they do [and are members of it at a particular time and place in history]; and by the time we are able to make conscious choices we are already making use of categories in a language which has reached a particular degree of development through the lives of countless generations of human beings before us. [Karl] Popper does not say, though he might have, that our very existence itself is the direct result of a social act performed by two other people whom we are powerless to choose or prevent, and whose genetic legacy is built into our body and personality. We are social creatures to the inmost centre of our being. The notion that one can begin anything from scratch, free from the past could not conceivably be more wrong…In everything we are, and everything we do, we inherit the whole past, and however much we might want to make ourselves independent of it there is no way in which we possibly can.

Consequently, when we reach conclusions that revolve around the evaluation and judgment of things we [and others] say and do, those convictions are themselves embedded in a long and complicated history…one that revolves in turn around how those before us [our parents and teachers and community leaders etc.] have chosen to evaluate and judge what still others have said and done before them. It’s just passed down from generation to generation.

In some respects therefore points of view are inherently part and parcel of a childhood indoctrination into ethnological parameters that many are barely cognizant of. They are, instead, so used to saying “I know this” or “I believe that” or “I think it’s wrong”, the “I” part is often just taken for granted. It has become a part of them like their fingers or toes.

The implication of this, however, is something to think about the next time you are confronted with a situation in which you struggle to come to grips with understanding what it means; or one in which you feel compelled to offer an assessment of its moral or political worth. The past is always deeply entangled in the present. In some contexts, however, this is more or less readily ascertained and revealed—rationally. For example, regarding a geological study of rock layers or ice cores. But human identity is not one of those contexts accessible to logic. Pick 20 people at random, plop them in a room and ask their opinion about a particular newspaper headline. You will get lots of conflcitng and contractory reactions. But the deeper you dig into their existential layers…the variables that led to one point of view rather than another…the more clearly you see it is the layers themselves that matter far more than the manner in which they are evaluated by each individual in order to proffer a particular opinion.

An opinion that can, of course, change dramatically at anytime. And one that can never be demonstrated to be the most reasonable of all.

You do not see me as I am but as you are.

I just take it a bit farther by suggesting I don’t even see myself as I am—only as I think I am. Human reality is just accummulating existential layers. And when you take the layers away in order to get down to the core you find there is no core. You find there are only the layers themselves. And then you live with it.

All we can do, in my opinion, is exchange experiences and observations and then construct, deconstruct and reconstruct mental contraptions that are said to reflect them. And then reevalute it all over again [and again and again] as new experiences and new relationships change the mix of variables.

Unless, of course, you feel compelled to weight down “the unbearable lightness of being” with one or another Truth. There are lots and lots and lot and lots of them out there. Including this one. And the fact that they often hopelessly conflict and contradict each other does not stop others from inventing still more.

“I” is a resourceful little fucker isn’t it?

To assess and then to pass judgement on the philosophical parameters of “I” necessarily involves all aspects of brain function. The the neocortex [the frontal lobe, the occipital lobe, Broca’s area etc.] can only be understood by the manner in which it is intertwined with the limbic system [the amygdala, the hippocampus, the hypothalus etc.].

From the web site Brain Health and Puzzles:

…your brain is not one single mechanism. Rather it’s made up of various different parts, each contributing to control different functions. Your brain is more analogous to an orchestra or a sports team, working together, to achieve a greater goal.

What we argue about in here, of course, is the manner in “I” as mind as matter coagulate all of these heterogenous variables; forever groping towards articulating a composite sense of identity we can all discuss in the least unintelligble manner.

But often it turns out we can’t even agree on what this means.

Human identity is always metastasizing subjunctively as “I” encounters new ways in which to understand itself. Or, as I am wont to point out, the “self” is always just one circumstantial landslide away from viewing its “reality” in very different ways. You can’t lasso “I” in philosophical concepts. You can’t pin it objectively to the ground with even the most sophisticated analysis.

From David Samuels’s article a few years back in the The New Republic:

[b]Invisible Man: How Ralph Ellison explains Barack Obama

Where Obama’s narrator provides the reader with a model consciousness, sensitive, responsible, and aware, who moves from triumph to triumph along the road to successfully embracing the fullness of his black identity, Ellison’s story ends badly. The Ellisonian collision between the individualist consciousness and the realities of the color line in America produces a kind of fatal and indigestible dark matter that is aware of itself yet can never claim a full share of humanity. Ellison’s protagonist is invisible because the symbolic radiance of his black skin queers the efforts of others to relate to him as an individual, and makes him prey to the manipulations of whites and blacks alike who utilize the brutal and absurd dynamics of the color line to satisfy private lusts for power and domination. The tragic thrust of Ellison’s novel is often reduced to the banality that black people are invisible to white people. Ellison’s deeper point is that the symbolic and actual baggage of race makes it difficult if not impossible for a black man to ever realize his full humanity in the eyes of anyone–white, black, communist, capitalist, or himself. [/b]

This a prescient evocation of the self-conscious invisible man. The undulating underground man who is fully aware of all the tangled webs he weaves in constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing the fractious ambiguity inherent in ever evolving relationships between I and We and all that is perceived as Other.

There is really no way in which Barack Obama can name and then embrace what it means to possess a “black identity”. And to the extent Obama is self-consciously channeling the existential nature of Ralph Ellison’s invisibility [the author points out that Obama claimed Ellison and Macolm X as mentors], is the extent to which he recognizes the futility of trying. All Obama would have to note, for example, is that, had he been a contemporary of Ellison, his background narrative and current accomplisments would have disqualifed him even from being elected mayor of Chicago, let alone president of the United States.

It is in broaching the cacophonous and convoluted narrative of “identity” that I have always admired the stunning achievement that is Ralph Ellison’s great novel. He recognized how identity [racial, ethnic, gender, cultural, historical etc.] is such that we are invisible even to ourselves in the end. We are a pastiche of ever reconfigured experiences, memories and interpretations.

We may decide to go our own way, to be “authentic”, to be our own person, our own self;. but what does that really mean when who you think you are now is so deeply and opaquely embedded in all that you once were—in all that you were once told you were by others as a child growing up.

Obama can never be black [or an “individual”] on his own terms. Even if he were to go underground and self-illuminate, in turn, it would remain no less opaque and ambiguous. And no less emphemeral in the sojourn to oblivion.

I often wonder the extent to which Obama grasps the perilous and problematic paradox that is identity. I would only know this, however, if he were to reveal someday that his belief in God was, in fact, merely a fragment of a political persona. In my view, it is only when we toss God out of the cave and reconcile our point of view with the ever present shadowy fragments of identity, that we learn to communicate more realistically, more pragmatically, more humbly.

And just to show how bizarre identity can become when it is politicized Obama today is seen as a socialist by many on the right and a pawn of Wall Street by many on the left.

I just watched the film Damage [from the Josephine Hart novel of the same name]. I have seen it many times and it never fails to enthrall me regarding the manner in which any particular human identity is dangling by the slenderest of threads; a precarious and fragile contraption; and always but one circumstantial jolt away from unravelling.

It is the story of Stephen Flemming, a successful member of the British Parliament who has spent his whole life convinced that only by ordering and controlling events he encounters from day to day can his life be understood as meaningful and purposeful and settled. It is the quintessential calculated life rife with the redundancy of ritual.

He has his perfect career and his perfect family living in his perfect home with his perfect future planned out amidst all the creature comforts of a lucrative, civilized world. He may one day even become the next Prime Minister.

But there are cracks in the mirror of course. And then one day he meets his son’s “new girlfriend”, Anna. He begins a tempestuous affair with her and as a result of it his whole world comes crashing down. His son discovers the affair quite by accident and as a result of that discovery he backs out of the love nest out into a hallway, stumbling over a banister and crashing to the floor below. He dies.

So, the man loses his son, his lover, his wife, his daughter, his job, his home, his future. He loses all that he has known as “my life”; and a whole sense of identity that revolved around it.

In the blink of an eye.

In the final scene of the film he is far, far away in another world. He tries to encompass it all by speaking to the audience:

It takes a remarkably short time to withdraw from the world. I traveled until I arrived at a life of my own. What really makes us is beyond grasping…way beyond knowing. We give in to love because it gives us some sense of what is unknowable. Nothing else matters in the end.

But in the end the film makes it quite clear how this point of view is just another illusion…another attempt at ordering and controlling what can be never be either ordered or controlled. His tumultuous, all consuming obsession with Anna was really just a reaction to what he could no longer bear—being his well-ordered and controlled self in his well-ordered and controlled world.

He is even able to admit this to himself:

I saw Anna once more only. I saw her by accident…changing planes. She didn’t see me. She was with Peter. She was holding a child. She was no different from anyone else…

Somewhere between these observations being completely true and completely false lies the reality of our own lives…our own reactions to them.

But what is certainly true [as Anna tries to convey to Stephen] is that “damaged people are dangerous…they know they can survive.” And once you know this you are all the less likely to fall back on who you think you are because you come to understand that who you think you are is often all you really are instead. And you come to accept how easily a circumstantial landslide can reconfigure you into, for all intents and purposes, an entirely different person. And when you have begun to accumlate such experiences…enough to know just how fragile “I” really is…you are less likely to be impaled on the horrors you might bump into adventitiously around the next corner. You can survive because there are so many other ways in which to reconstruct the fragments of self. Then you might become all the more cynical regarding the ways in which you are able to manipulate others in order to shape the world to your own liking.

Or maybe not. Maybe you will go in the other direction instead.

In any event, you no longer come to think of yourself as wearing masks around others; instead, you come to think of yourself as being one. And, in my view, the wisest among us come eventually to grasp that we are one even to ourselves.

When we look at ourselves, it should be as if we are looking at any other part of existence. We shouldn’t try to view the perspective from which we view, like a dog chasing its tail.

We can only look at ourselves, not inside ourselves. We can’t take ourselves apart, because those parts are necessary for our existence. When we attempt to isolate any part of ourselves, it is no longer us, and so we must look at the whole.

What in the world does this mean?

Please situate [instantiate] these abstract concepts by bringing them down to earth. How would they relate to, say, the relationship between a parent and a child in conflict over a particular behavior like smoking marijuana? How would they relate to the interaction between a citizen and the government regarding a policy like conscription?

Brigitte Lozerech prefaces her novel The Temp with a quote from Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand

When one has suffered much, and for a long time, one forgets everything but oneself; personal misfortune is a cold but demanding companion; it obsesses you and leaves no room for any other feelings, never lets go, takes possession of your legs and your bed.

She then begins the novel itself:

[b]It’s not love that frightens me, it’s men. I’m not afraid of work but of offices, careers, business, organization, society. People say I’ve no ambition. I’m also terrified of crowds.

I’m frightened. I huddle inside myself, hide as best I can, using any devise. I know very well that I’m not where I belong, but I don’t know where I do belong. What I fear most is to be one of the crowd, an ideology, a fashion, a herd pouring out of the same subway station, entering identical doors in a row of houses in one street, climbing stairs and walking through a door, saying good morning to colleagues and sitting down at a desk for eight hours. This seems to me so profoundly sad that I refuse to be a part of it. When I do find myself in this situation it’s only by chance, and I can say, ‘I’m only a stand-in. I’m a temp.’

I’d also hate it if I were caught flirting in the very height of fashion, or following the latest theories, which are as transitory as most fashions.

I protect myself. I hide and leave false trails, so that no one can find me. I’m nontheless very hurt when I’m misjudged, but I reassure myself by telling myself, ‘they don’t know the real me and are judging by appearances.’ Then I feel a tiny surge of pride and triumph. I feel above them, maybe alongside them, but certainly not one of them. Suddenly when I least expect it, anxiety siezes me, panic constricts my throat. Then I feel like marching in a demonstration, arm in arm with others, laughing and chanting slogans. Then I would like to go home to a husband and children like my cousins of the same age, the girls with whom I work, the friends I used to have.

I burst into tears and realize that I don’t exist, that in this society of well-oiled cogs I am nobody, rejected as I was so often in the schoolyard when I wasn’t chosen for a team. It’s hard to live as an outsider, but I’d hate to merge with those inside. How is one supposed to live?[/b]

After reading it I wonder: how does philosophy respond to something expressed in this manner? What is the author saying here that might be construed as philosophically relevant or irrelevant? Or, instead, is it merely a psychological outburst that has no lasting or significant relevance at all when stacked up next to, say, an academic pursuit of rational human discourse?

Or, perhaps, is the search for a logical, coherent understanding of “the human condition” itself missing the point regarding just how relevant this particular reaction to contemporary human relationships might be for those inclined to either fervently embrace or dismiss a similar point of view? Or be completely indifferent to it.

It is all inexplicably contextual. Responding to the passage will largely reflect your own circumstantial trajectory. You will generally share or reject the protagonist’s reflection – her recoil – based on the life you live. On the manner in which you have come to understand what it means. In other words, she is not responding to the world or comporting herself in the “right” way…or the “wrong” way. She just happens to see the world around her [and reacts to it] in this way…now, today.

Just as you and I have come to make sense of it as we have.

Many, however, will rationalize that, when it doesn’t make sense to see it this way tomorrow, they are at least closer to understanding the way it should make sense. And this makes no sense to me at all. Although I can certainly understand why it might to them—given the way in which we seem to be hard-wired to rally around various psychological defense mechanisms.

The way I look at it, it is a miracle we are even able to communicate as well as we do. Sideways, as it were. And it almost always comes down in the end to personal fortune and misfortune. It is existential to the bone.

Everything seems to be dangling by the slenderest of threads as we weave in and out of each other’s lives. At least it seems that way to me.

Immersed as most of us generally are in the task of actually living our lives from hour to hour, our sense of self is relatively solid. And even from day to day or week to week or month to month or [for some] year to year the incremental changes are so small our lives can engender the illusion of being “necessary” or “whole”. Existentially persuasive, as I like to say. It is only when we look back 5 years or 10 years or 20 years that we begin to note just how much has changed. We note how different we have become.

Or, rather, those of us who live eventful lives do.

How then do we account for this? Well, most people rationalize it by saying, in effect, “yes, I have changed over the years…but that is only because I am now more fully aware of and in touch with who I really am” or “I am wiser now because I have had more years in which to contemplate it” or “the person I have now become reflects the most rational manner in which to be”.

And yet don’t we all embrace a sense of self that can at times conflict dramatically with others? And regarding all manner of important things? Someone may have been a liberal in his youth and later disavowed this and embraced conservativism instead. But then someone might have been a conservative in her youth and later embrace liberalism. And both might be intellectually astute. Think David Brock or David Mamet.

How then do we really disengage our philosophical reflections regarding the nature of “my identity” from existential trajectories that can challenge those conceptual or theoretical constructs?

I’m simply speculating that the existential boats we all row from the cradle to the grave will always have holes. Lots of them. That is the nature of human identity—to be a sieve in which new experiences and new relationships and new ideas are incessantly poking holes in the old ones. Especially in this postmodern age we live in. One in which, unlike our more distant ancestors, there is not always a clear cut place for everyone and everyone does not always occupy his or her own clear cut place.

Things can become considerably more problematic these days. Well, again, at least for some of us. Many now try on identities like they try on clothes. They are not even called identities much these days, are they? They are called “lifestyles” instead. Why do you suppose the world is being invaded by the evangelical hordes on both sides of the ocean? They want their Identities back.

But, again:

So much depends on the extent to which your life is eventful. If very little does change over the years it is much easier to construct a conceptual agenda and stick to it. Identity is always at the intersection of theory and practice. Consider, for example, this excerpt from The Outsider, by Colin Wilson

[b]…for what is identity? These men traveling down in the City reading their newspaper or staring at advetisements above the opposite seats, they have no doubt who they are. Inscribe on the placard in place of the advertisement for cornplasters, Eliot’s, lines…

‘We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together’

…and they would read it with the same mild interest with which they read the rhymed advertisements for razor blades, wondering what on earth the manufacturers will come up next.

They have aims, these men…but an aim is not an ideal…They changed their shirts everyday but never their conception of themselves.

These men are in prison; that is the Outsider’s verdict----caged animals who have never known freedom. And the Outsider? He is in prison too—but he knows it. His desire is to escape. But a prison break is not an easy matter; you must know all about your prison, otherwise you might spend years in tunneling, like the Abbe in The Count of Monte Cristo, and only find yourself in the next cell.[/b]

Now, the wisest of men, in my view, recognize this: one man viewing the prison [of identity] from the inside looking out is essentially interchangable with another man viewing it from the outside looking in. In other words, there is no more or less “authentic” manner in which to encompass the prison of identity. Other than…philosophically.

Out in the world, however, it is increasingly a matter of perspective. You can’t really escape your identity without it becoming just another “cell”.

How do we encompass a sense of reality – out in the world with others – other than in how we perceive it existentially with our own eyes and ears and minds? No two people live identical lives. Everyone has their own unique interactions: we read this book and not that book, we meet this person and not that one, we have this experience and not that one. And, because we always exist within the confluence of particular variables, our individual lives will flow problematically in a virtual infinite constellation of permutations.

As a consequence, meaning, as a manifestation of identity, revolves around how we come to understand this. And, concomittantly, the manner in which we grasp this can never truly be grasped in turn by another. Just as how they grasp these relationships can never truly be grasped by us.

It is ever an existential mosaic our mind’s eye pieces together from day to day in order to orient ourselves in all that is contingency, chance and change.

Emile Cioran:

Each of us believes, quite unconsciously of course, that he alone pursues the truth, which the rest are incapable of seeking out and unworthy of attaining. This madness is so deep-rooted and so useful that it is impossible to realize what would become of each of us if it were someday to disappear.

Susan Sontag:

[Emile] Cioran’s broken arguments…bear witness to the most intimate impasse of the speculative mind, moving outward only to be checked and broken off by the complexity of its own stance. Not so much a principle of reality as a principle of knowing: namely, that it’s the destiny of every profound idea to be checkmated by another idea which it implicitly generated.

This is the inherent nature of a fragmented personality trying to piece together all of the conflicting and contradictory existential variables it encounters whenever it tries to “think through” human relationships in a world that never stops evolving into something else. So, you have to wonder: why do we keep groping after something we cannot realistically comprehend as anything other than the particular mosaic we ceaselessly conflate existentially?

It is I believe the sheer futility of communicating the meaning of these relationships wholly, comprehensively [coupled with the intense desire to do so] that brings us to acknowledge the useless passion that “I” ultimately embodies.

Well, some of us.

From Six Existentialists Thinkers by H.J. Blackham:

The existentialists…use Husserl’s method of discerning and describing basic structures, but with their attention turned back to the world, including the self in the world. And when we return to the factual world, we find that we can constitute, and therefore explain meanings, but we cannot constitute, and therefore cannot explain, the real; we are up against the irreducible existence which we must accept and can describe but cannot constitute…Existence is an inexhaustable resorvior of meanings, since our approach to things is always and necessarily from a point of view and is therefore drastically selective. But Heideigger wishes to raise the question of the meaning of Being in its unity and totality.

And, of course, Heidegger failed. Just as had every previous philosopher. Always trying to find the intellectual Rosettta Stone that will take us [take “I”] to Being. And always settling for one that was comprised of Definitions and Concepts and Theories instead. To wit: if this deduction about phenomonological interaction is true than, a priori, that one is, as well. And it all sticks together reasonably well as long as the exhange doesn’t actually go anywhere near phenomonological interactions themselves. And so, like Kant, the metaphysicians sully the part that is lived down on the ground and embrace the part that is merely “thought out” scholastically instead.

Husserl was a mathematician and a logician. His aim was to disclose as Blackham puts it, “the world of experience rather than the experienced world”. And what exactly is that? Well, perhaps, whatever one defines or analyzes it to be?

Again, as though the manner in which medical science encompasses the objective reality of an abortion as a medical procedure could be translated, in turn, into being with respect to the moral parameters as well.

From William Hubben’s Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka:

Much of Nietzsche’s thinking is a monologue, a persistent contradiction within himself, which ends at last in the exclusive self-reflections of Ecce Homo, written shortly before his outbreak of insanity. ‘I have become more a battlefield than a man,’ he said. His thinking is one great protest against the logical construction of a philsophical system, an explosive trend that had begun with Kierkegaard’s rebellion against a ‘system about being which cannot possibly exists.’ He has his own tragic share of tensions between reason and instinct, emotion and logic, tradition and irreverence so characteristic of his time, that were to foreshadow the breakdown of Europe’s civilization…Any noble thought arising in him is mmediately attacked by rebellious, brilliant or cynical counter arguments and suspicion. He knows he can never find his true self; it must remain elusive, tragically hidden.

If more of us would recognize our excursions into philosophy reveal more the “battlefield than the man” there might, in my view, be a lot less actual battlefields with a lot less actual bleeding corpses strewn up and down them. But many, of course, continue to take their existential leap to philosophy in order to discover and embrace that which they become convinced is analogous to Wisdom.

Wisdom grasped by the Self in search of Reality.

How else to explain the [at times] heated arguments various “schools of philosophy” repeatedly engage in. Not only to “prove” one or another rendition of, say, What Nietzsche [Kant, Descartes, Plato, Camus etc.] Really Meant but also to nail down once and for all how close or how far this was from the most rational manner in which the Wise Man can, in fact, deduce it.

Yet some argue that Nietzsche [contradictions and all] encouraged this by not more fully acknowledging the extent to which his own philosophy was subject to its own “rebellious, brilliant and cynical counter arguments”? They claim he wanted it, by and large, both ways. He wanted to deconstruct all of the old logo-centric, binary, metaphyscial intellectual contraptions but, in turn, he wanted to then introduce his own. In other words that, paradoxically, the manner in which he crafted and expressed his chief arguments [God is dead, the Uberman, the Will to Power, the herd, the creatively constructed and reconstructed existential “self” etc.] does not seem all that far removed from the manner in which those he criticized orchestrated and conveyed their own rendition of the crucial distinction made between the authentic and the inauthentic lifestyle.

But what if—philosophically—there is no distinction? What if “I” must ever remain fractured and fragmented with respect to that which is most crucial in our lives: how ought I to live it?