Feb 19, 2015

Ideas Wrestled With As Realities - An Existentialist Theme

As I was preparing earlier today for one of my videoconferencing class sessions -- I provide several of these per week for my students in my online Existentialist Philosophy and Literature class -- I was rereading some Dostoevsky.  As we've got just a week for each of the eleven thinkers covered in the course, we're studying the Notes from the Underground and the "Grand Inquisitor" chapter from The Brothers Karamazov.  (As a side note, I'd love to find some way to work in portions of the Possessed/The Demons into the week as well!)

It's quite common for anthologies and classes to focus in on the "Grand Inquisitor" section, and understandably so -- it both provides some wonderfully crafted complex literature, and also embodies certain motifs that will become classically associated not only with Existentialism but also with critique of totalitarianism.   The two chapters immediately preceding -- "The Brothers Get Antiquated" and "Rebellion" -- are also masterful discussions, where Dostoevsky is at his best unfolding the hearts, minds, and relationships of his characters, interlacing them with genuine dialogues bearing on ideas.  And it is in ideas specifically that I'm particularly interested here, specifically what Ivan Karamazov says about a certain kind of approach to ideas.

Russian Young Men in the Taverns

Over soup, jam and tea, seated together at the Capital City Inn, Ivan tells his younger brother, Alyosha:
[W]hat have Russian boys, some of them at least, been doing all this time?  . . .  [W]hat do you think they'll talk about during those fleeting moments in the tavern?  You can bet that they'll get right to those eternal verities, such as the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. And those who do not believe in God will bring in socialism, anarchy, and the reorganization of society according to a new scheme.  But as you realize, it really boils down to the same damned thing -- they're all the same old questions, they're just approached from a different angle.
After a bit more back and forth -- what they really are going to be discussing is one of those eternal questions, the existence of God -- he adds another key insight:
I won't of course, bother to repeat to you the fashionable axioms accepted by our Russian boys -- all of them derived from hypotheses formulated by Europeans -- because what to a European is a mere hypothesis is at once accepted as an axiom by a Russian boy; and alas, not only by the boy, but also often by his professor, because a Russian professor nowadays is just another Russian boy.
Ivan goes on then to begin setting out some of the difficulties he has been grappling with in trying to make sense out of God and the created world, and Alyosha asks him "why did you have to start as stupidly as you could" -- using Ivan's own characterization.  And Ivan responds:
First of all to make it sound really Russian:  Russian discussions of this subject are conducted in the most stupid manner conceivable.  And secondly, because the more stupidly we talk about these things, the closer we come to the point.  The stupider, the clearer.  Stupidity is brief and straightforward, while intelligence is tortuous and sneaky.  Intelligence is crooked, while stupidity is honest.  I've carried my argument to the point of despair, and the more stupidly I present it, the more to my advantage that will be.

Existentialist Reflections on Ivan's Remarks

Set aside Ivan's disparaging comparisons between Europeans and Russians as both a set of common tropes and also in some sense onto something, and what can one make of them?

There are times, places, cultures, groups, even particular establishments where that sort of serious play with ideas not only occurs, but becomes -- often just for a while -- the new norm, the main project.  Notice as well, that the sort of debate Ivan refers to remains an ever unfinished dialogue, subject to all sorts of contingencies and eccentric digressions even while its participants attempt to circle back to what they take and put forth as necessary, demonstrable, arguable, even universally valid -- never succeeding in convincing all present, and sometimes not even themselves.

Ivan speaks of them as living, thinking, and communicating in a different relationship to ideas than those of other people.  They adopt as axioms (or in the language of older schools of philosophy that thought philosophy had something to do with how one conceptualized, deliberately chose, and then lived out, experienced, and suffered, one's own life - dogmas) what the more sophisticated, the detached, the aloof, knowing better others treat as mere hypotheses.

To adopt such an attitude towards ideas -- to think that not only do they matter, but that ideas are in some sense real, almost tangible, the sorts of things one can enter into relationship with, explore from within and without, even bear responsibilities towards -- that strikes many as naive, underdeveloped, and old-fashioned.  And yet. . .  isn't that, at least with respect to certain ideas -- not all ideas, of course, but some of them -- one of the hallmarks of Existentialism?  It's not just about philosophizing from one's own concrete situation, about the challenges one is faced with, making one's own individual standpoint the stand-in for the larger human condition.  It goes in the other direction as well, condensing the larger within the scope of the smaller.

To make something personal of the universal, of the human condition, of the eternal truths -- admittedly there lurks a danger there of going too far, of lapsing into a narcissism that coerces those ideas to constellate around oneself as their pole star.  That's true. . .  but there is also an equal, or even greater danger of missing out by holding back too much, of maintaining an imaginary an possibly unnecessary reserve towards ideas that at least some people have thought worth not only arguing over, and not just living or dying for, but also orienting and ordering their lives about or into.

Is this to become stupid, to stultify oneself, literally to force oneself into foolishness?  I don't think so, though I do see something worth pondering in the contrast Ivan draws between the crooked and the honest, the straightforward and the sneaky.  Certainly approaches to ideas that remain all too abstract, that render what's left as realities dull and mute, and that employ still duller sets of further ideas to somehow bridge the distance between them -- could that not describe so much of what goes on, gets taught, gets published, under the guise of "philosophy" in so many quarters? -- such approaches are at antipodes from philosophy as a passionate (and yes, often puzzling) activity in quest of further and more lucidly articulated meaning, meaning that can be reconnected, rooted and grafted into the trunk of one's life.

So, perhaps, this stance of taking ideas seriously enough to argue over them, to feel and be moved by passions and other affects bound up with them, to think and say that they matter -- to start out from something -- to live out ideas, to suffer from them, to exult in them, to commit and choose, or even to fail and falter when faced with their real demands. . .  perhaps that should in fact be recognized as an important theme of Existentialist Philosophy and Literature.

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