Mar 172014

PEL Not SchoolLast weekend the Philosophy and Theater Group had our monthly discussion, and this time Phillip Cherny and myself talked about Tom Stoppard‘s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a tremendously clever, meta-fictional play which fills offstage moments of Hamlet with absurdist hi-jinks.  For the philosophically inclined, this play has fireworks from beginning to end, and Stoppard covers a lot of ground in between:  the meaning of chance, free will and determinism, identity, madness, truth and much more.  As with the group’s other recorded discussions, you can find it on the Free Stuff for Citizens page as soon as you join up to become a PEL Citizen.

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Feb 192014

PEL Not SchoolAt the beginning of this month, Carlos Franke, Phillip C., and myself spoke about Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited on a Skype call.  The call will be posted on the Free Stuff for Citizens page, which you can access as soon as youjoin up to become a PEL citizen.  PEL tackled McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men back inepisode 63, so long time listeners will be familiar with some of the features of his work.

The Sunset Limited is billed as a “novel in dramatic form,” and we all felt that we missed much less by simply reading it than with the other plays we’ve read for our group.  As Phillip pointed out, it reads like a sort of twisted Socratic dialogue.  McCarthy gives us two characters, known only as “Black” and “White,” who proceed without compromise to make their respective cases for life and death.  When the play opens, White has just attempted suicide and Black has intervened.  White’s position remains settled on death over life, while Black believes in a “life everlasting,” which he is convinced White also desires at some core level. This begins a debate between Black and White about the merits of life and death, the relationship between reality and consensus, the connection and obligation people might have to each other, and a lot more.  McCarthy is the kind of writer whose lines you can pour over again and again and still find something new.  Much of our discussion consisted of trying to get a hold on his slippery language and wrestling with these big themes.  Of course, philosophical arguments for and against suicide came up, along with Camus and Schopenhauer, and we tried to get some understanding of what relationship they bear to actual suicides.  If none of that is too morbid for you, go check it out.

Also, while The Sunset Limited lends itself very well to being read, the HBO version with Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson is definitely worth watching if you haven’t seen it.

- Daniel Cole

Feb 052014

But what are we then if we have the constant obligation to make ourselves what we are, if our mode of being is having the obligation to be what we are? (386)

Sartre builds an obnoxiously robust case against humanity for its pervasive “bad faith,” a delicious doublethink meal that our minds keep feasting on (one which we must forget we consume, and then forget that we made the choice to forget, and then forget . . . wait, what happened?).

His accusation is that we invariably deny our existential authenticity (that we are “condemned to be free”) in favor of the ease and comfort of the everyday illusions that sustain our blissful play-acting and, as a result, we miss out on the “total involvement” that would bring us directly and irrevocably into meaningful existence (as we get to define it, should we take on the responsibility). To Sartre, “man is nothing else than a series of undertakings, . . . the sum, the organization, the ensemble of the relationships which make up these undertakings” (356). A fairly amusing categorical tone, given that he will complicate what man “is” by also suggesting that man is what he is not, or is what he is becoming (in that he is always transcending what he is), or is what he is not yet . . . .

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Jan 312014

About half way through the BBC’s 1962 production of No Exit, I started rewriting it in my head. The reason? I got tired of watching the same four white-washed walls, the same three benches, and the same half-dozen paintings which make up the film’s only set. Yes, I know, it’s based on a play, but I wanted something more cinematic. I imagined the same three characters from Sartre’s play, but they wouldn’t be in Hell; they’d be in an office, forced to work all night to meet a deadline. This way, the film’s setting could at least have two or three rooms instead of just one. And they obviously wouldn’t be dead, so the monologues that detail what the characters are seeing of “life” would have to go. But… then I realized it wasn’t possible to change much about the story without changing the theme. The character-arcs require the characters to have no exit – Garcon’s attempt to isolate himself would actually be successful if he could take bathroom breaks; Estelle wouldn’t be so needy if she could find a mirror, etc. So I gave up trying to make this play more “filmic.”

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Jan 302014

On Sunday I had a discussion with Sean Webb, Stan Martin, and Yannick Kilberger about Sartre’s novel Nausea (1938), which you can download from the Citizen Free Stuff page. If you’re not yet a Citizen, sign up to get access to this file and more than a dozen other discussions.

Moreso than Sartre’s philosophical work, a novel like this is supposed to tell us what existentialism is really all about, and sure enough, we get the narrator Roquentin feeling the raw existence of his surroundings: “existence which unceasingly renewed itself and which was never born” (p. 132). What seems to happen is that while ordinarily we see objects as meaningful, e.g. as tools, as decoration, as things with history and often purpose, we can set that aside and see things instead as brute and meaningless. We can’t handle that, aren’t meant to handle that, and so instead of this being a machine-like, unemotional way of experiencing things, it is (for Roquentin) intolerably icky.

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Jan 252014

veil of perceptionKant’s idea that one can never see what the world is really like “underneath” the phenomenological world we are in, whilst a great departure, is still minimally in the tradition of the Empiricists before him: it still had a veil of perception model. His world was still a bit like the world of Hume, were we had a subject receiving bits of information – it’s just that Kant gave us a way in his Transcendental Subject of preserving objectivity, causality and so on across this series. He gave an account of how experience can be structured objectively and reliably.

This system still has certain minimal metaphysical commitments: there is a subject, there are things in themselves (which we might call objects), and there is the symptomal phenomenal which we have direct contact with. There is still what we call a subject-object distinction. An “out there” that becomes an “in here”. A world that enters a mind. (For more on this from a slightly different perspective, read Mark’s recent blog comparing Kant to Kuhn.)

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Jan 192014

On Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1946), “Bad Faith” (pt. 1, ch. 2 of Being & Nothingness, 1943), and his play No Exit (1944).

What is human nature? Sartre says that there isn’t one, but there is a universal human condition, which is our absolute freedom. This freedom is a basic certainty in our experience, and it comes out of the mere fact of our being able to will, so no subsequent alleged science can contradict it. If you claim to be determined by your character or circumstances, you’re acting in “bad faith,” which is what for Sartre has to serve as an ethics given the lack of good and evil floating out there in the world or duties assigned to us by nature or God or any of that. He describes his project as a matter of teasing out the often unrealized implications atheism.

Though his reading is rife with fun, literary examples, we (the regular foursome) had trouble both with this insistence on absolute freedom in all circumstances and on on this claim about no human nature which ends up making bad faith seemingly inevitable: you can’t be “authentic” to your “true self” because there is no true self to be authentic to! So ha!

Read more about the topic and get the texts. Listen to Mark’s introduction and our read-through of “No Exit.”

End song: “Minnesota Freak” by Mark Lint and the Fake (2000). Read about it.

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Jan 022014

Listen to Mark’s summary of the two main readings, then Listen to the PEL Players act out the play “No Exit.”

At long last, we’re returning to existentialism after an initial foray into it with Camus. We’ve previously covered Sartre talking about phenomenology and the self, and also Kierkegaard talking about the self and values, so those are related, as is Heidegger’s talk about being-in-the-world and our proper attitude towards Being. Oh, and Buber also talked about the primacy of “the Other” in making sense of ourselves, and this general discussion of “self” continued in many of the above and was key in one of our Hegel episodes.

“Existentialism” is an amorphous term that is used in many ways; it connotes primarily the experience of me, now, facing life, including my own death. Well, that’s pretty much one end of philosophy, isn’t it, or rather the center, where the periphery is made up of various subjects that we throw ourselves into, studying them with some analytical apparatus like that of science, or history, or mathematics. Any time philosophy becomes urgent, becomes about facing the human condition and trying not to be distracted or otherwise self-deceived, then you’re talking about existentialism, so it’s not surprising that you could have Christian existentialists and Buddhist existentialists… Continue reading »

Jan 022014
No Exit

In support of our ep. #87 discussing Sartre, the PEL Players present our 2nd annual dramatic reading of a work of philosophical theater.

Mark Linsenmayer and Wes Alwan are joined by real actresses Lucy Lawless (Xena, Battlestar Galactica, Parks & Recreation, etc.) and Jaime Murray (Defiance, Dexter, Warehouse 13, etc.), who are pals through working together on Spartacus.

Warning: This is a cold read, not a rehearsed production, for educational purposes only (meaning you’re not allowed to have fun listening to this, I guess). For sure, you’ll get your money’s worth for this free product.

PEL Citizens can listen to amusing outtakes from this project.

You can read the version we read of this 1944 French existentialist play online here. You may also want listen to Mark explain Sartre’s view of human nature and freedom and read more about the topic.

End song: “No Exit,” by Mark Lint, freshly written and recorded for this occasion.

Please support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen or making a donation.

Jaime and Lucy

Dec 202013

Mark Linsenmayer lays out some themes from Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” and the “Bad Faith” chapter (Part 1, Ch. 2) of Being & Nothingness.

A transcript is available on our Citizen site’s Free Stuff page.

Read more about the topic.

Nov 282013

If from continental philosophy you throw out transcendental phenomenology and older idealist trappings–transcendental subjects and so on–you are left with a system which still has two components: the world and the self.  It was the relationship between these two that took hold as the major problem for 20th C. continental philosophy.

The upshot of the first phase of the “analysis of the self” we know as existentialism and may be traced back to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and others, but it really gets off the ground as an independent topic with Heidegger. His pre-conscious self, which he calls Dasein, is primarily characterized by two things: 1) it is ontologizing (it takes part in giving the world its particular character); 2) it cares. Continue reading »

Nov 212013
Nick Mount

Nick Mount

As our Philosophy in Fiction Not School group has begun to dig into Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot” this month, questions about how to interpret the play have started to crop up. Who or what is Godot, and why are these guys waiting for him? What do we make of the seemingly aimless and repetitive dialogue, the bare stage, and these abstruse characters? Unless you happen to be an inmate at San Quentin, “Waiting for Godot” can be a difficult work to unlock.

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Jul 142013

Listen right now to Seth giving a 10-min summary of Heidegger’s essay via a new “Precognition” mini-sode.

Back in episode 32 (over two years ago!) we covered the project of Martin Heidegger’s most famous work, Being and Time, composed early in his career. (Incidentally, I see a new and exciting looking translation of this on Amazon that you may want to pick up.) We’ll next be covering a later work, his essay “Letter on Humanism” from 1949, which is his clearest statement of his concerns after his famous “turn” where his focus changed in ways that scholars are not entirely in agreement about, but which surely involved an increased interest in the role of language–in particular poetry–in relating us to Being. He seems to think that poets can express some truths that the rest of our discourse is too tainted by post-Platonic Western metaphysics to be able to handle.

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Jul 082013


I sometimes feel like our default position on the various figures we cover on the podcast is “well, there are some interesting ideas there, but the project as a whole is weird and misguided.” Now, I’m sure that we all don’t feel that way about every figure we cover, but per my statement of default skepticism to the clergy, there’s some truth to that in my case, at least. I’m skeptical of any and all full-on philosophical life approaches, which then includes religions and any other “isms.” Part of the way this skepticism manifests itself is in what I always call an analytic approach to philosophy, which doesn’t mean writing about set theory or embracing logical positivism or anything like that, but merely writing clearly and being bullheaded about what you don’t understand: don’t admit that a crazy-sounding philosophical notion makes sense until you can personally make sense of it.

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Jun 272013

Listen to “Things We Should Do” and “Things You Should Do.”

I did not intend to write another new, episode-specific song right after the last one, but once I started thinking about it, it rather kicked off in my head.

The only relation to Ayn Rand is that she’s, in my opinion, “of the existentialism moment,” meaning that like the existentialists that were her contemporaries, she’s concerned with the fact that we’re all going to die, and for her this means we need to evaluate every choice we make in a sort of economic fashion: is this really the most valuable thing to do with my time. Also, she’s flamboyant and largely full of crap. So I got to thinking about all this “bucket list” talk floating around our culture (and appropriated by feel-good advertisements) and wrote a simple, goofy, repetitive song asking the listener, “Have you ever done this? Have you ever done that? These are things that you HAVE to do,” and including lots of mundane and nonsensical and otherwise out-of-place things in the list to make fun of the whole idea that a singer should be offering such prescriptions.

I was planning on singing the whole thing in a high, Prince-type falsetto, but then started thinking about female singers I knew that could do it instead. Back in 1994 I conceived of a whole chanteuse recording project where I would write goofy songs for some woman to sing and wrote several with names like “The Siz of Luv” and “Lust!” but never actually recorded any of them. So this was a revival of that idea, but the difference is that now I’m on friendly occasional emailing terms with Lucy Lawless, so I asked her to sing the song, she said yes, and I recorded a little video demo to send to her and started the recording.

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Feb 152013

On Buber’s 1923 book about the fundamental human position: As children, and historically (this is his version of social contract theory), we start fully absorbed in relation with another person (like, say, mom). Before that point, we have no self-consciousness, no “self” at all, really. It’s only by having these consuming “encounters” that we gradually distinguish ourselves from other people, and can then engage in what we’d normally consider “experience,” which Buber calls “the I-It relation,” wherein we can reflect on and manipulate the world.

Buber thinks that unless we can keep connected to this “I-Thou” phenomenon, through real, mature relationships (dialogue!), and maybe also through art and the appreciation of nature (we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how, as he says, you can really have an I-Thou encounter with a tree), you’re spiritually dead, treating everyone as objects and sporting a thin, pissy sense of self to boot. If you get get in the groove, on the other hand, you’ll come off all shiny and ethical and ready to transform the world. Sweet! Oh, and by the way, the “Thou,” every thou, ends up also being a direct line to God, so all you “spiritual but not religious” folks are theists after all. Nyah nyah!

Mark, Seth, and Wes are rejoined by verbose lawyer Daniel Horne to hash through this difficult and possibly mystical text. Read more about it and get the book.

End song: “Luscious You” by Mark Lint and the Fake from the album So Whaddaya Think? (2000). Download it free.

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Feb 012013

On Feb. 1 we up again with previous guest and PEL blogger (and Twitter/YouTube master) Daniel Horne to discuss Martin Buber. Listen to the episode. Buber is known as a religious existentialist, much like Kierkegaard, which means he’s concerned with our fundamental relation to reality, and thinks that our individual attitude has some impact on our being, on whether we’re living “authentically” or not.

For Buber, this means recognizing the fundamental orientation or experience as interpersonal, and specifically one-on-one. As with Hegel, we don’t start out as fully formed egos, little balls of greed with desires and maybe rights, but in sort of a formless mass with the rest of humanity, just a part of nature. We don’t get self-consciousness, or real personhood, until we’re recognized by another. But while Hegel’s picture of this is of a life-or-death struggle between master and slave, Buber thinks it’s a matter of love, of connecting with someone so that their subjectivity “fills the sky,” so that all the rest of the world you see (metaphorically) through their eyes or, better yet, in their light. Through this process I see myself: this is how the “I” is formed.

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Oct 082012

Lucy LawlessIn one of Woody Allen’s films (Annie Hall?), one of the characters remarks that existentialism is a matter of projecting one’s neuroses onto the world. Instead of me being depressed, I am in an ontological state of despair. Instead of being a person who is considering what to do with my evening, it is the world that is pulsing with possibility. What seems especially weird about this language is that if the feelings are objective, out there in the world in front of me, then this seems to imply that they are not under my control. It means that I’m acting like a helpless infant beset by these forces.

Though the objectifying language implies this, it’s a misreading of existentialism, or rather a pop existentialism that hasn’t delved into the real theoretical goods. According to Sartre, what we call ourselves really is objective, in that it’s a social construction, not something trapped inside my head. Talking about possibilities and emotions as swirling around an infinitely small point that is consciousness is actually a pretty good phenomenological description of my experience, but a further account of experience reveals (for Sartre) that we have pretty much total control over the interpretations we give to things, e.g. over whether we see the landscape as laden with possibilities or as impossibly confining. Sartre would agree that the neurotic pop existentialist is being infantile and should just get it together.

To fandom: On our big sell-out episode, I referred to one of my motivations in looking into the topic as trying to grapple with the existential weirdness of being a fan. I’m still trying to unpack why I feel the need to use the word “existential” in that context. Continue reading »

Oct 012012

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a great American novel.

Ellison’s ability to make the reader feel the racism of the time is unsettling. The painful experience of living in a country that views you with disdain—that sees you as a problem—permeates the text.

It is also a deeply philosophical novel. Consider the following outline of the novel written by Ellison to his literary agent as he was beginning what would be a 7-year writing process:
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Sep 212012
Cormac McCarthy

On philosophical issues in McCarthy’s 2005 novel about guys running around with drug money and shooting each other, and about fiction as a form for exploring philosophical ideas.

What can morality mean for people who have witnessed the “death of God,” i.e. a loss in faith in light of the horrors of war? For both the protagonist and antagonist in “No Country for Old Men,” morality is about being satisfied with your own actions, even if what you’ve done is set in stone forever, and even if it were to be the last thing you do before death. This is not purely subjectivist, though, seemingly not just dependent upon our whims. In McCarthy’s sort-of Nietzschean world, we have duties toward the dead, and duties towards ourselves. It’s clear that this sort of “ethic” is not coincident with “ethics” as we’re familiar with it, as it’s something shared by both the risk-taker-with-a-heart-of-gold hero and the I’ll-kill-you-like-cattle baddie.

What does McCarthy himself think? Who knows? Like many good philosophical novelists, he puts philosophies in the mouths of his characters to try them out as world views, to see how they hang psychologically and what fate they lead to, in the author’s best estimation. Another peculiarity of the novel as ethical philosophy is that is provides a full-blown concrete ethical situation to analyze instead of a classroom abstraction.

We discuss these issues and more with Eric Petrie, Professor at Michigan State University, who’s an old friend and teacher of Dylan’s. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: “My Grandfather” by Dylan Casey (2001).

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