Well I’ve changed my reading plan. The anthology simply didn’t resonate with me at this point, I read the introduction and felt that it was a bit sterile. So I decided to re-read a chapter of Nagel’s The View From Nowhere I came across last year. I really enjoyed reading it again and would like to provide a little write up about why it resonates with me.
This specific chapter, the concluding one of the book, is titled Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life. Sounds easy.
Standpoints on Standpoints
Nagel starts off with his distinction on the two perspectives we, as humans, find ourselves inhabiting. I am a particular individual absorbed in my specific day-to-day engagements—obligations and responsibilities that present themselves to me immediately and with immense importance. I need to get this paper in today, I need call my dad, I’ve got dinner tonight with a friend, shit I forget to respond to an email, and I really want to watch more mindhunter. Yet despite the natural urgency I attach to all my daily affairs, I can at any moment detach myself from my particularity. I can enter into reflection on myself moving through the world and engaging with others who view themselves with the same subjective immediacy and naturalness I view myself. Going further, I can see myself from an objective view, and from this perspective I am an inconsequential, biological contingency. This objective view is a form of understanding that comes into conflict with my subjective view of my life.For after I move into the objective view, I find myself struggling to regain the same sense of importance that was so natural in my pre-reflective state. Nagel locates the problems of birth, death, and meaning in this uneasy relation between perspectives. More specifically, the sense of detachment that results from one’s entering into the objective perspective. This is a peculiar sense of detachment, since it undermines my commitments without destroying them. As Nagel puts it, I feel subjectively committed while simultaneously detached, and this detachment can lead to a jarring displacement of one’s subjective involvement in the world.
I’ve read Nagel’s article on the absurd before and this chapter hits similar intuitive notions. His emphasis on the phenomenological character of feeling trapped in my individuality, in my objective self being dragged along by my subjective seriousness, and the deep discomforts that result from being a particular person. All this is familiar territory in a certain sense, and something I believe is important to cultivate in one’s life. So I want to talk about it in relation to something I haven’t found mentioned very much: the absurd and living well.
Meaning, Growth, and Absurdity
I think a question naturally arises, why would anyone want to find life absurd? The vast majority of humans live their lives without entering into a reflective stance calling into question the seriousness with which they take themselves. Or, if people do have moments of disengagement, they typically feel that the more “existential” reflections on one’s ongoings are misplaced and pretentiously high-minded. I don’t want to engage with this feeling that existential detachment, or the philosophical process that leads to it, are misplaced and/or the result of too much schooling. I want to assume that these are legitimate processes of reflection that, granted that one follow the chain of reasoning, result in the conclusion that life is absurd. The objection then arises, “sure, life is absurd, but why would I want to know that?” Or, as one of my friends put it, “I feel like that’s a conclusion [absurdity] that my sixteen-year-old self would find super deep, but now it just feels like, ok, so what?”
I think this is an important point to address, because my first inclination is to retreat into my own phenomenological experience of existential detachment: “it’s just unavoidable to have these feeling, why haven’t you felt this way yet!” But in reality, people might just have different temperaments, and mine may include an imbalance of over-reflectivity and too much time to myself. But I think this is a cop-out and doesn’t appreciate the importance of philosophical reflection in living a human life, and I’m going to rely on some insight from the Stoics to develop my point.
Attention and Objectivity
For the Stoics, we fall into anguish when we forget the distinction between those actions and events which do and do not depend on one’s self. This distinction is the Stoic rule of life, and the Stoic concept of prosoche allows us to mediate on the rule: it is an attentive vigilance and continuous presence of the mind to the current moment. Prosoche is a deep form of mindfulness allowing a stoic philosopher to remember that he or she is only in control of a very limited set of actions, leaving the rest of the causal mechanisms and happenings of the world outside of one’s control and to the domain of nature. In other words, a stoic philosopher orientates his life only around those actions within his power and recognizes that the vast majority of events occurring in nature are entirely outside of his causal control. This allows him to be fully aware of what he does at each instance and fully live in the present. The philosopher also realizes that only those events and reactions within his causal influence are morally relevant. So, for example, one might lose a loved one to an illness and proclaim it as a moral travesty; but a Stoic philosopher will utilize prosoche and remember that only those events within one’s causal influence are morally relevant. The death of the loved one wasn’t wrong, it was simply a natural event (I find this aspect of Stoicism misguided but this isn’t the place).
This attentive vigilance characterized by prosoche can be called a “cosmic consciousness.” Pierre Hadot, a French historian of philosophy, says that it occurs when one’s attention is directed to the infinite value of each present moment. One learns to “accept each moment of existence from the viewpoint of the universal law of the cosmos.” Marcus Aurelius sums up this active process aptly when he exclaims:
Everywhere and at all times, it is up to you to rejoice piously at what is occurring at the present moment, to conduct yourself with justice towards the people who are present here and now, and to apply rules of discernment to your present representations, so that nothing slips in that is not objective.
This was a real quick and dirty summary of a few ideas in Stoicism, but it will work for my purposes. In the remainder of this post, I want to explore the idea of prosoche and the Stoic rule of life in the context of Nagel’s subjective and objective view. My main question is the follow:
what’s the conceptual relation between attentive vigilance on the present, specifically focusing one’s attention on what does and doesn’t depend on one’s self, and the subjective and objective view?
My first aim is to establish a conceptual link between prosoche and the objective view. My second aim is to show that insofar as prosoche enriches one’s life and entails a capacity for the objective view, the objective view is an essential component of living a good life. And since the objective view leads one to recognize the absurdity of life, the absurdity of life is therefore worth living with.
I recognize the contradiction in my strategy. My reliance on a normative account of absurdity is an appeal to the subjective view: it is good for you to live with absurdity. Yet, one could argue, if the objective view strives for transcendence from a particular point of view, then from the objective standpoint it won’t matter that its good for you to live with the objective standpoint. My appeal to the value of the objective view would therefore undermine itself.
This is undeniably true to an extent and I won’t be able to avoid it. I am simply hoping to show that one process we can undertake to live good lives, the method of prosoche and directed attention, implicitly relies on our capacity for the objective view. I am offering one way of potentially fleshing out what Nagel means when he says that “the objective standpoint, even at its limit, is too essential a part of us to be suppressed without dishonesty.” If I can show that entering into the objective standpoint allows us to live better lives as individuals, then I believe I have shown that absurdity is worth living with.
Quick disclaimer: I am not relying on any textual evidence from the Stoics to support my claim and I’m basically ignoring the Stoics’ views on the cosmos and rationality. I’m also conflating the Stoic rule of life (recognizing the difference between things that depend on you and those that don’t) with prosoche (attentive vigilance that includes recognition of the rule of life) here and there. I do this for simplicity’s sake and because I want to avoid any pretense of offering a historical analysis of Stoic cosmology or logic. I am sticking to a relatively intuitive and simple conceptual analysis.
Attention and Transcendence
“The capacity for transcendence bring with it a liability to alienation.” –The View from Nowhere, 214
First aim: discovery of the objective view through prosoche. I think there are two ways this can be done:
(1) through the method of attention
(2) through the results of attention
Now (2) seems relatively straightforward to me. When I say result I’m imagining that you have a dialed in consciousness of the present moment (a dialed in subjective view). From there you could say, “only I can control X (while Y and Z are outside of my causal influence), therefore from my perspective X is all that matters” Ah, but doesn’t this show that the recognition of what does and does not depend on you relates to your knowledge of perspectival viewpoints? And doesn’t the recognition of limited perspectival viewpoints require the ability to transcend your viewpoint and enter into the objective standpoint? Thus, having in a dialed consciousness on the present and recognizing the Stoic rule of life would require the objective view.
I should note that my leap from “only I can control X” to “X is all that matters from my perspective” only works if I assume that I am not the locus of all meaning. I don’t find this to be difficult as long as one isn’t tempted by solipsism. Surely it isn’t challenging to recognize that I am the locus of attention, in the sense that my own capacity for causal influence is the only thing worth focusing on, without concluding that I am the source of all meaning (and the Stoic certainly wouldn’t accept that).
So that’s one, somewhat boring, way of doing it. Now I want to try the method of attention. I find this a bit more conceptually interesting.
First, observe that the reason for prosoche emerges from one’s misguide habit of overextending the self. We misjudge our causal influence on the world and vice-versa. I have the tendency to extend my potential for control way past what I’m actually capable of influencing, and I allow events outside of my control to dictate my life while overlooking my ability to choose how I respond. This shows that we tend to merge ourselves with our surroundings. It is so natural for me mix myself in with my social and physical environment. I get anxious about global events and happenings entirely outside of my control. I worry about accidents happening to my loved ones without having any ability to prevent or even affect the possibility of those accidents occurring. All of this neglects my incredibly limited causal capacities, and the work of prosoche and the Stoic rule of life is to develop my consciousness of this fact.
I believe this recognition of misguided concern is rooted in the objective view precisely because it is a recognition of the limits of human agency. In other words, misguided concern results from an overextended subjective view of one’s self. The subjective view has a natural inclination to overextend itself into the world and the Stoic rule of life works to correct this inclination. The Stoic’s emphasis on attention to what does and doesn’t depend on one is rooted in a recognition of one’s limited particularity, resulting in a motivational calibration. This calibration is shaped by the objective view: I, as an astonishingly small creature in this world, have a very limited set of events I can actually influence despite my inclinations to the contrary. Thus, the properly aligned subjective view of one’s life is only made possible through the process of entering into the objective standpoint and viewing one from afar. Insofar as it is worthwhile to properly align one’s life, it is worthwhile to handle the entailments (absurdity) of entering into the objective view.
An objection: what I’m saying is different from the objective view. The objective standpoint doesn’t view my attention as misguided, it views it as ungrounded. If I understand myself entirely removed from myself and from a position outside of all human concerns, then surely living as an individual who only cares about what is within his control is just as absurd as living as someone who thinks he can control the moon with his mind. Or, to put it differently, living an imbalanced life of strife is just as absurd as living a flourishing life. Once you have viewed oneself as a creature within the world removed from your particularity, it becomes very difficult to ever engage those concerns with the same prior attachment of particularity.
Additionally, it seems like the method of prosoche is a sharpening of subjective understanding while the objective view is a wholly different form of objective understanding. How would entering into the objective view lead to a more properly aligned subjective view when they are fundamentally incomensurable?
This is a powerful objection. All I can say in response is that I find it very difficult to imagine myself sharpening my consciousness, or even having a concept of perspectival consciousness, without having the objective view. I can’t imagine a race of conscious being who find themselves with misguided concerns, a deep desire to live better lives, and an intense focus and meditation on how they can live better as individuals without having the capacity to recognize their limited individuality. One could argue that recognizing that one is living a strife-filled life and having the desire to live better could both occur within the subjective view. I agree, there are many people who devote themselves to living better without ever considering that their lives and pursuits might be ultimately be absurd. But I cannot accept that one could utilize the Stoic’s method of living a better life, as a tension of consciousness and acute focus on one’s living a particular life in this particular moment of presentness, could be accomplished without the capacity for transcendence.
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I feel that there is some deep connection between Nagel’s idea of the objective view and Stoicism. This has been a quick attempt to flesh out those two in relation to one another. Looking back, I think I may have misconstrued some aspects of Nagel’s idea of the objective view as a style of understanding. But, hopefully, this post has been a fruitful wrestling with his ideas and will lead me to better appreciate the intricacies of his project. I cannot shake the feeling that recognizing the duality of perspectives we sometimes find ourselves inhabiting is an enriching and worthwhile project for each of us to engage in. Admittedly, it might only be the product of having a certain philosophical temperament, but I won’t accept that until I’ve tried my best to capture why I feel that it is so important.