Kafka's famous story The Metamorphosis,
Gregor Samsa wakes up and finds himself turned into
a giant insect. He knows that he is not an insect,
but his family can see only his appearance.
Gradually, the reality of his new condition becomes
part of his self-perception, and the reality of his
past and future conditions becomes part of his
perception by the family. In the end, both sides
seem to lose the sight of the past. His death,
partly violent, puts an end to the entire episode.
Kafka's short novel The Trial, Joseph
K. wakes up and finds himself involved into a
bizarre and dreamlike—Kafkaesque,
as we now say—court trial,
the reason of which remains unknown. The situation
is resolved in the same way as in The
Metamorphosis, but more violently.
creations are considered examples of the existential
thinking. The problems arise from the perception,
true or imaginary, of life as something charged with
stress, contradiction, nightmare, and dread.
difference between Kafka and philosophical
existentialism is that Kafka's situations are
obviously artificial and impossible in real life.
They are metaphors, while existentialism regards
actual human condition as naturally unnatural.
Walter Kaufmann, deny that existentialism is a
not a philosophy but a label for several widely
different revolts against traditional philosophy. (Existentialism: from
Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by Walter
Kaufmann, Meridian, 1975. Introduction).
rather confusing. The "revolts" are numerous and
voluminous books. How can a non-philosophy revolt
against philosophy by unrolling large texts that
look like philosophy, read like philosophy, and are
written by philosophers?
Here is an
imaginary situation where the fantastic element is
A human being with initials J.K., unlike inanimate
things, perceives himself as (J).
J.K. is also perceived by other
human beings. Each of the others has his own image
of J.K., for example, M.N. perceives J.K.
. This is not a true image, J.K.
insists, because it lacks the self-image of J.K.,
which is part of the total truth. The total is
larger than either J or K. .
The problems of J.K. do not end here
because religious, legal, and philosophical systems
regard all humans as equal under a certain religion,
law, and philosophical system. Whether the individual
is called J.K. or M.N., or A.B.,
what he thinks about himself, the system, and the
others, and what the others think about him—all that
is utterly irrelevant for the system. An ideal democracy does
not care at all. The law, however, may hold
J.K. as ( L )
for tax evasion.
Moreover, there are
new questions. Do J, K
and L , which are nothing but
appearances, have anything behind them that does not
depend on who is looking and from what position?
When J.K. is looking at his finger, is he aware of his
looking at his finger? And if you answer yes
to a question like this, then you have to be able to
answer no to the same question because if you
say yes, you automatically assume that no
is also a possibility. Is your own existence a
possibility or necessity? And so on. An infinite
sequence of philosophical questions looks like the
infinite mutual reflections of two opposite mirrors in
What is the truth? Has the individual any
freedom while being boxed into the system together
with the others and a handful of intellectual
Styrofoam beads? Has he any individuality? Is his
existence authentic or enslaved by the system and the
others? What system is true? Which answer is false?
examples of questions modern philosophy considers.
Remarkably, a particular philosophy finds itself in
the same predicament among other philosophies as
J.K. among people. It is scrutinized by other
philosophies, as well as by the current
predisposition of the society that may or may not
give a damn for this or any other philosophy at the
moment and for that matter for the truth itself, not
to mention the individual. As Karl Jaspers said
about philosophers, "We can thereby read their works
as if all philosophers were contemporaries." (quoted from Kaufmann).
illustration of what a philosophy can say on the
subject, I would like to quote Jean-Paul Sartre:
What appears in fact is
only an aspect of the object, and the object is
altogether in that aspect and altogether outside of
it. It is altogether within, in that it manifests
itself in that aspect; it shows itself as the
structure of the appearance, which is at the same
time the principle of the series. It is altogether
outside, for the series itself will never appear nor
can it appear. Thus the outside is opposed in a new
way to the inside, and the
being-which-does-not-appear, to the appearance.
Similarly a certain “potency” returns to inhabit the
phenomenon and confer on it its very transcendence—a
potency to be developed in a series of real or
possible appearances. (Being and
Nothingness, Introduction, I).
Over 700 pages later, close to the end, the text goes:
The "mine" appeared to us then as a relation of
being intermediate between the absolute interiority
of me and the absolute exteriority of the
not-me. There is within the same syncretism a self
becoming not-self and a not-self becoming self.
Nothingness, Part Four, Chapter Two,
And in the
conclusion, one finds:
But the principal result of
existential psychoanalysis must be to make us
repudiate the spirit of seriousness. ....For the spirit of
seriousness, for example, bread is desirable
because it is necessary to live (a value
written in an intelligible heaven) and because bread
is nourishing. The result of the serious
attitude, which as we know rules the world, is to
cause the symbolic values of things to be drunk in
by their empirical idiosyncrasy as ink by a blotter;
it puts forward the opacity of the desired object
and posits it in itself as a desirable
irreducible. (Being and Nothingness, Conclusion,
The fact that somebody like myself has a deaf ear for
this kind of philosophy means no more than somebody's
ridicule of classical music. Philosophy
requires hard work and love from the student. As Karl
Jaspers noted, "A great philosopher demands
unrelenting penetration into his texts" (from Kaufmann, again).
anticipating the serious unseriousness of Sartre and
Heidegger , Kafka makes the sister of Gregor Samsa
in The Metamorphoses feel a great relief
after the remnants of her former brother are swept
away. She returns from the metaphor to life:
And it was like a
confirmation of their new dreams and excellent
intentions that at the end of their ride their
daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her
I have been
interested in philosophy since my youth, but I
stayed mostly on its threshold. Looking inside the
vast hall of philosophy, I saw its general map and
design but I could not find there anything
more worth of hard work than my immediate
occupations. In competition for my time, philosophy
used to lose. But my curiosity and the teenager's
secret love from afar have survived the years.
today that philosophy is a form of art. It is the
art of questioning.
does not give any "true" answers.
the question "What can I know?" immediately poses
the question "Can I know what I can know?" which in
turn branches into:
"Can I know anything?"
"What is I?"
"What is to know?"
"What is anything?"
"What is question?"
"What is answer?"
"What is 'what is?'"
And finally, somebody asks again the old and
completely justified from the philosophical standpoint
question "What is is?" and gives the answer in
the form of a big and obscure book entitled Being
and Time, as Martin Heidegger does, or Being
and Nothingness, as does Jean-Paul Sartre.
It is a serious question. "It all depends on what is
is," as Bill Clinton put it.
It looks like a minefield. Wherever
you step, new questions explode in a circle around
"What shall I
do?" another philosophical question sounds. As
soon as I know what I shall do, I lose all my
freedom to choose, there is no way back, and I am my
own obedient slave. Any answer kills the question
and dies of starvation.
as true as any art: it cannot be false. It is not to
be taken too seriously. Its medium is language. The
language is regarded as nature or model, and
philosophy paints a picture enlivened with the
chiaroscuro of meaning and historical perspective.
The picture is framed. It seems that we could
understand everything if the picture were an inch
longer and wider. The secret key must be right on
the edge, under the frame. We look at the other
side, but there is no help.
Both art and
philosophy have been moving ever farther from the
surrounding world and its mundane questions and
images. Both modern art and philosophy invent their
own building blocks and erect amazing structures
I see even
some similarity between postmodernism and pop-art in
the selection of blocks from the fringe of real
life. It could be a calculated or subconscious
desire to go back, down to the primeval dirt
littered with elephant dung and to the very
beginning of art and philosophy. But it could also
be the simple drive for novelty, which is the
locomotive of business.
Like any art,
philosophy influences our life in very subtle and
intricate ways, even if we do not read Plato and
Sartre, because it softly and sporadically
influences literature, visual art, and even science.
It does so by stimulating thinking, disseminating
new metaphors, and scattering them over new
intellectual lots. The questions are the seeds of
some answers on the new soil, especially, in
humanities, but they mostly generate new questions.
The philosophical production is like the acorns:
there are plenty of them but only a few or none grow
into new oaks. It is a mental game, a sport, where
you play against Aristotle and Hegel. As soon as
some philosophy is proven true, philosophy will end.
It is like to proclaim the San Francisco Giants the
champions from now to eternity.
Like any art,
philosophy is a separate world that recruits its
fans from both laymen and professionals, some of
whom build majestic shrines on the Web: to Kant , existentialists, Spinoza, Michel
Foucault, etc., which
is impossible to do without love.
attractions of philosophy are not just the complex
beauty of its evolution and exhausting difficulty
but also that you can study it all your life and
still discover something new. Philosophy shares
this type of attraction with nature, science, art,
children, and even pets. Philosophy is a source of
fresh surprise. It is like an experienced, generous,
and unpredictable partner in love.
a complex non-equilibrium system that never stops
point of view of substance, it makes as much or as
little sense as baseball, but certainly makes less
money. Nevertheless, the stars of philosophy
are recognizable brand names: Aristotle is "a full
service Internet and interactive multimedia design
and consulting firm," HEGEL is a
"provider of cutting edge audio technology" and Descartes
"powers the next generation of collaborative
logistics management on a global scale, providing
customers with Internet-based capabilities to
optimally manage nChain processes." There is even Spinoza® the Bear
Who Speaks from the Heart™: "He is not only a soft,
cuddly teddy bear who begs to be hugged, but a
carefully designed, dynamically effective resource
tool" for children with chronic illness.
still bets his money on philosophers' fame.
Philosophy still offers consolation. This is lovely.
intuitively believe that philosophy is converging
with science exactly where Randall Collins (see Essay
27, The Existential Sisyphus) anticipates it
happen: on the grounds of abstract mathematics, or,
to be more accurate, on the grounds of the science
of complexity. The peculiar property of this
kind of science is that it cannot make a detailed
prediction concerning large complex systems. It is
very abstract and general. It is glued to
computers. This inherent fusion of chance and
necessity and the inappropriately strong
humanitarian perfume that science of complexity
wears makes it suspicious in the eyes of traditional
cool-headed physical sciences as well as humanities.
But it really tells something new.
We are now
approaching the end of the twentieth century, and it
seems that some more universal message is carried by
science, a message that concerns the interaction of
man and nature as well as of man with
Ilya Prigogine, Order out of Chaos
that Kant and Hegel will be sooner or later
reevaluated in terms of science of complexity and
found remarkably prophetic for their time and
translatable into modernity. Approached from behind
and taken by surprise, philosophy will be also
analyzed from the point of view of psychology and
sociology, and this process has already started.
physics, too, deals with indeterministic behavior of
microscopic objects, for example, electrons and
atoms. The dramatic difference is that what is going
to happen to an individual atom of radioactive
element is by no means a matter of life and death
for us. On the contrary, the behavior of a large
number of radioactive atoms can really be a matter
of life and death, but it is statistically
of a large complex system, like society or
individual, is never completely predictable in
principle. Science merges with philosophy when
science becomes too general and vague in
predictions, too un-serious, while philosophy becomes
concerned about answers more than about questions.
probably, has already said all that.
There is a
particular and quite mundane problem that prompted
me for this recursion.
like individual, can find itself entangled in
philosophy because there are other societies and
because abstract systems of beliefs float like
clouds over the earth, sending down rain and
Here is an
We have to
respond to the actions of another society. Violence
We cannot use violence in response to violence, can
we? Being the object of violence is bad.
Inflicting violence is bad. Not to respond to
violence with violence means a lot of harm. When we
look from inside, we are victims. When we look from
outside, we are both victims and perpetrators. When
we ask the others, we are perpetrators.
Where is the
The truth is,
probably, in the scale of priorities, similar
to the Confucian scale of values (Essay 13, On
Numbers). The big difference between
philosophy and life is that philosophy, unlike the
deli department in a supermarket, gives no
line numbers. The classical philosophy does not
distinguish between individuals, while the modern
philosophy says : "It's all up to you, buddy."
individual has to define his or her personal
topology (Essay 24) and evaluate the distance
to family, friends, nation, its various
constituents, the perpetrators, and their own
neighborhood. This is a dirty business. It is like
choosing between two of your children.
In the days
after September 11, I heard it many time: a caller
to a talk show or a participant in a discussion asks
the question: How can we kill innocent people in
response to terrorist murder of our own innocent
people? We will be as evil as
I can never
forget how thirty years ago I discovered in a
library a dusty volume of a complete 100-volume
edition of Leo Tolstoy's writings. It opened in the
middle of Tolstoy's article in which he, during the
Russian-Japanese war of 1904-1905, preached
surrender of Russia to Japan because the loss of
life was much worse. It came as a shock and it still
bothers me as a kind of cognitive dissonance: how
could Tolstoy write that?
discussion about violence illuminates a real chasm
between action and reflection, the same problem that
occupied Shakespeare in Hamlet. Philosophy
has always been regarded as escape from real life.
Leo Tolstoy was a big detractor of Shakespeare.
The laws of
the world inside our head are completely different
from the laws of the real world. It does not rain in
our brain. There is no wind, no tide. Instead, it is
ravaged by emotional tornadoes and earthquakes
of imagination. We can imagine anything, but only a
few scenarios have any chance of realization. The
world of our mind is like the world of sci-fi movies
or MTV. This is why there is a deep divide
between the subjective picture of the world and the
objective one. From the inside, we see ourselves as
victims of the evil. From
the outside, brought up on the relativist culture,
we can see the fight of the equals. The fog of
reflection stops us cold.
as I see it, is thinking in terms of Good and
It is obvious that we regard the terrorists as evil. It
is equally obvious that they see us evil. They
are violent. We are violent. It is a logical
impasse, unless we believe that our violence is
justified because it is ours, or no violence is
justified and we have to surrender to terrorists and
satisfy their demands, or something else.
terms of Good
implies that there is a powerful heavenly protector
The other side, however, thinks so, too. This is
To be or not
to be? This question is a step ahead from
"what is to be?" Still, it is philosophy.
philosophy, like art, is not about truth. Violent
conflict is not about philosophy, it is about
ideology (Essay 24). Our personal position is
not even about ideology, it is about simple reasons.
( Essay 28 ). The simple reasons are about
life, health, freedom, and happiness. They are about
instincts: the id.
Pacifism is a
perfect ideology in times of peace. In times of
conflict it faces the same problem that any
existential philosophy does: the questions have no
answers. They are lost in the Ping-Pong reflections
Is there any
other source of belief capable of supporting some of
our basic instincts against others?
philosophy has a great rival: the deep and dark
instincts of our body. Both the instincts and
philosophy, however, have a great common rival. The
society calls it history. The individual calls it
There is some
delicate irony is in the fact that the some
existentialist writers regard individual history as
the true essence of human being.
Man is what has
happened to him, what he has done. Other things might
have happened to him or have been done by him, but
what did in fact happen to him and was done by him,
this constitutes a relentless trajectory of
experiences that he carries on his back as the
vagabond his bundle of all he possesses. (José Ortega y Gasset, History
as a System. Quoted along Walter
History, unlike philosophy, is a
search not as much for questions as for the answers in
the form of facts that can be verified, as in science.
Individual and national history is the answer to the
question what an individual and a nation are in fact,
not in reflection. History of ideas includes also the
history of reflections. We ourselves, as well as
nations, corporations, and systems, can use history as
a single mirror and learn something from studying our
moles and wrinkles through the optical, not
and nations that had been torn apart from the inside
in the moment of crisis and showed weakness instead
of an ultimate collective will used to be defeated.
The peoples and nations that acted upon the urgent
needs of the moment (when the distinction between Good and Evil is
locally clear) used to win. As in any act,
transition, and change, victory is never guaranteed.
Without action, however, the defeat under assault is
Churchill is still my hero of the century.
a paralyzing force if not opposed by action. Our
body wants to live, whatever our mind says. Our mind
says that only a deadly risk might give our body a
chance to live. Our mindless emotions may run ahead
of the mind and push us toward action before we run
the calculus of chances. The real history is
complemented by the imaginary history of
humankind in art and literature, religious and
secular: the culture of the time.
I came to the
appreciation of history at a later age, around
forty, when I realized that I was in the middle of a
great historic transformation of Russia. When
I started searching Russian history for
answers concerning its origins, reasons, and
prospects, I found them.
In American history I find even more answers
than I have questions.
One of the
lessons I drew from history is the futility of such
terms as Good
as universal categories. Neither science nor history
knows what they mean. If I know what they are, I
know it from my culture.
Now, to return to my
subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and
savage in this nation, by anything that I can
gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of
barbarism to everything that is not in use in his
own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of
truth and reason, than the example and idea of the
opinions and customs of the place wherein we live:
there is always the perfect religion, there the
perfect government, there the most exact and
accomplished usage of all things.
In time of
war, however, a new set of values takes precedence:
there is a case of ignorance so crass and of
cowardice so flagrant as to surpass any norm, that
should be an adequate reason for accepting them
as proof of wickedness and malice, to be
punished as such (Montaigne, Essay I:16. On
Montaigne fought as soldier. So did
Socrates and Sartre (in the Resistance).
point of view of history, there are always two
opposing sides, Goil and
rather than Good
+ EVIL ---->GOIL + EVOD
In time of
the conflict, however, there is no history. History
is in the making. It is only for a relatively
short transition period in history that one side
violently, cruelly, and unstoppably advances without
opposition. Then we clearly see the sides as Good and Evil.
In response, we simply take pragmatic steps based on
what we are, i.e., on our own experience, if we are
blessed to live in a society that can afford such
choice, or go against the society if it does not, or
just go with the tide. The society and its
government have no use for the philosophy of
philosophers. There is only a little bit more
use for science, the philosophy of facts. War is
mostly about the character.
war are transition states. By its very nature, the
transition state is abnormal, extraordinary, and
exceptionally. War cannot last forever. It is
necessary to achieve a new stability and a new peace
because we have lost the old one. To me this simple
thermodynamic metaphor of the historical situation
answers the moral questions without recurring to
philosophy. We have to endure the anxiety of the
transition state even though it is higher than the
anxiety of our initial state.
I believe that
man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is
immortal, not because he alone among creatures has
an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a
spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and
endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to
write about these things. It is his privilege to
help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding
him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and
compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been
the glory of his past.
I see in
history the record of the glory of the past rather
than the record of violence. It is, probably, an
When I am
picking on liberalism, I do not criticize it.
History of liberalism is part of "the glory of the
past." I would be greatly upset by the demise
of liberalism. I feel comfortably only in a liberal
society. I am looking, however, for an opponent or a
containment to liberalism. I see it in humanism.
means lowering the barriers. It allows the "low
energy" individuals to pass barriers (in airports,
too) that would be impassable otherwise, as they are
in authoritarian or rough societies. Humanism, which
I understand, probably, as collateral to its many
accepted meanings, is raising the barriers to
harming each other and to losing human creative
potential. Humanism makes distinctions and analyzes
topologies. Liberalism has nothing to do with love.
Humanism comes from love, and love is selective.
Being human carries a liability. To love is a
and humanism, the brothers, seem to be on opposite
sides, like in a civil war.
all wars on earth are civil wars.
Prigogine is not alone. Another deep and rich author
on science of complexity is Stuart Kauffman, for
example, in At Home in the Universe: The
Search for the Laws of Complexity, London:
Viking, 1995. He represents the whole school of the
Institute , which is
complementary to Prigogine's ideas and incomplete
quotations from his book (end
of Chapter 8, High-Country Adventures):
only do organisms evolve, but, we must suppose, the
structure of the landscapes that organisms explore
Evolution is surely "chance caught on the
wing," but it is also the expression of underlying
2. José Ortega
y Gasset (1883-1955)
was the most lucid, consistent, and eloquent among
for himself a program of life, a static form of
being, that gives a satisfactory answer to the
difficulties posed for him by circumstance. He
essays this form of life, attempts to realize this
imaginary character he has resolved to be. He
embarks on the essay full of illusions and
prosecutes the experiment with thoroughness. This
means that he comes to believe deeply that this
character is his real being. But meanwhile the
experience has made apparent the shortcomings and
limitations of the said program of life. It does not
solve all the difficulties, and it creates new ones
of its own. When first seen it was full face, with
the light shining upon it: hence the illusions, the
enthusiasm, the delights believed in store. With the
back view its inadequacy is straightway revealed.
Man thinks out another program of life. But this
second program is drawn up in the light, not only of
circumstance, but also of the first (along Walter Kaufmann).
Ortega was Spanish. Existential ideas seem to be
only a small part of his intellectual production. He
was most of all interested in problems of
society and its historical choices. Like Friedrich
Nietzsche, a German, and Vilfredo Pareto, an
Italian, he was elitist. The fact that the three
highly original thinkers had been born shortly
before Fascism came to their native countries tied
them to Fascist ideology in retrospect. All three, I
believe, were just sensitive gauges of their
national environment and had some reasons not to
cater to the common man. Ortega in his Revolt of
the Masses did not.
3. "It is
fear that I am most afraid of." Montaigne, Essay I:18, On Fear. Was
Franklin Roosevelt inspired by Montaigne? Probably,
not. It is just how it always is in dangerous times.
4. One can
find a lot of definitions
of humanism and its
components on the Web. Strangely, none of them
contains the word "love." All treat humankind
as a whole. To love abstract humanity more than
particular human beings and values?.. See Essay
5. The link
between philosophy and preparation to death comes
from Socrates ("To philosophize is to practice
dying," in Phaedo). In Essay I:20, To
Philosophize is to Learn How to Die,
death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned
how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.
risks and dangers do little or nothing to bring us
nearer to death.
6. "When a bad time
starts, it is as if on a smooth green lawn a toad
appears; as if a clear river suddenly floats down a
corpse. Before the appearance of the toad, the corpse,
one could not imagine the lawn as anything but
delightful, the river as fresh. But lawns can always
admit toads, and rivers corpses,"
Lessing, The Four-Gated City, 1969, Part
Two, Chapter 1.