Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Sartre’

Winter in Maine…We Go Dark

In Philosophy on February 28, 2013 at 6:00 am

Let’s fish deep today. As deep as 500 words (give or take) will allow.

First, pardon me if I’m about to wax too philosophical. It’s winter in Maine, and we retreat, hibernate, go dark. Come spring things will look up.

The Father of Modern Philosophy, Rene Descarte

The Father of Modern Philosophy, Rene Descartes

Suppose for a moment that you’re out and about on the town, and suddenly a degree of self-doubt washes over you such that you’ve never experienced before. So deep is this doubt, that, indeed, you’re not even certain you exist–you are so very, so profoundly, freaked out. You escape to your room trembling. You have one of those exquisite dark nights of the soul and by morning you have concluded that you only know one thing truly: that you are thinking. And, you assure yourself, if you are thinking, then you must in fact exist. With this knowledge you rest easy and nod off to sleep.

This is the foundation of modern western philosophy. Cogito Ergo Sum, said Descartes. I think, therefore I am.

Now, fast forward a few centuries. You’re extremely cool, sitting at a cafe on St-Germain-des-Prés, the west bank of the Seine, smoking black cigarettes, sipping wine and watching the world go by. You are feeling especially philosophical and it occurs to you: How

Sartre, the Father of Existentialism, as photographed by Cartier Bresson.

Sartre, the Father of Existentialism, as photographed by the great Cartier Bresson.

could you possibly even think if you didn’t first exist? Why, it’s not thinking that comes first, it is existence. I is not, I think therefore I am, but: I am, therefore I think. You have just erected the cornerstone to existentialism. You’ve turned Descartes inside out. You are a genius. But then you know that.

The most fundamental contribution of the existentialists is simple: existence comes first. Everything else follows.

And that, friends, is the briefest account of modern philosophy you will likely ever encounter.


But what can we really know?

There is a philosophical mind game that goes as follows: You are nothing but a brain under glass. There are tubes and wires coming and going from your brain and coursing through these tubes and wires are stimuli, thoughts, and emotions. This input is nothing more than the machinations of an evil scientist. You think you exist because the evil scientist has programmed your brain to believe it so…and so forth. How can you possibly prove this is not the case? If you’re a Cartesian, you’re stuck under the glass. You are thinking. Period. There is no: …therefore, I am. You really can’t prove anything. Robert Nozick put it this way: “How is it possible that we know anything, given the facts the skeptic enumerates, for example, that it is logically possible we are dreaming or floating in a tank with our brain being stimulated to give us exactly our current experiences and even all our past ones?”

I don’t have an answer for that. Perhaps you should read Nozick? Or maybe, you simply shrug your shoulders and just hold out until spring when you can take your canoe down the Dead River to Flagstaff Lake where you watch the sun set behind the Bigalows. That’s what I think I’ll do.


Want to read Sartre’s thoughts on existentialism, but not suffer through his magnum opus, Being and Nothingness? Consider his landmark essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” linked here. Or, perhaps you are feeling lighthearted. If that’s the case, then here you go–now for something completely different:

Thanks for reading.


Buzzwords of authenticity

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on March 12, 2012 at 2:40 pm

There is an article in the current Yankee magazine about the tradition of the Maine guide. At its heart, the guide program here in Maine is the practice of handing down skills and knowledge, guide to guide. It is, by definition, a tradition, like an apprenticeship. The article speaks to the context of “ritual history” verses “artifact history.” Artifact history is stuff, the offal of civilization, the things one finds in antique stores and museums. Ritual history, however, is the action of a skill handed down, including the knowledge of time and place contained in the memory of the teacher, drawing on previous teachers. There seems such natural symmetry to history practiced, if that is the right word, in this manner.

Turning still to contemporary culture, I received a catalog from a company called Ibex. They specialize in outdoor clothing. The catalog is quite nice and filled with lovely photography and interesting copy. Not all the copy is specific to selling clothes, at least not directly. There are several short essays that articulate the life-style choices of the Ibex clothes wearer. They are good little pieces, and frankly inspiring. One title, in particular, caught my eye: “Do (Authentic) Things.” The piece describes a sixth generation Vermonter, Bob Harrington, who runs a 140 acre sap farm. He collects sap with a horse-drawn tank. Drawing an overlap between their clothing and Harrington’s story, the copy reads, “We understand taking a longer road, a road tied to an artisan product and a strong connection to the natural world. We get it.” Consumerism aside, I respond to the pitch with a good deal of appreciation.

The business of authenticity has held center to my attentions for some time. It is the classic challenge: how to ensure that your experience of experience is valid. I have to reject in principle Sartre and Heidegger who held that modern civilization is already lost, that authenticity had been crushed by modern cultural norms and the attendant technologies. However, despite my rejection of that claim, it does not escape me that we first turn to outdoor guides and sap farmers when thinking of a life drawn authentic. I enjoy the comforts of modern existence. I’m not a Luddite. But there seems something fishy about much of modern existence (perhaps what Roland Barthes meant by “the plastic attempts of modernity”); so devoid it often appears of ritual history, to use our new phrase.

I wish to eat at the table of authenticity where the test of time is a basic ingredient of the recipe. That meal is most satisfying when the skills of its making are handed down from previous generations. Whose meal would you rather, Grandma’s or Ronald McDonald’s?

Does not something in our DNA long to connect with the ritualized promise of our ancestors? I fancy that if I find the right combination with which to respond to that question, a satisfaction, rich and unique, will be my reward. How best does one understand the nature of authenticity and assimilate that knowledge into a life?

My life has sprinted parallel to the advancement of silicon technology.

In Philosophy, Technology, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on May 11, 2010 at 6:05 pm

I was three years old in 1958. That was the year Jack Kilby demonstrated a continuous sine wave from his integrated circuit to the management team at Texas instrument. That was the year modern technology was born.  It was the first successful working integrated circuit. He had been wrestling with what was poetically referred to as the “tyranny of numbers.” This specific tyranny was one of size and scope. In order to get the computing machines to work as the engineers suspected they could, they required more and bigger components. The machines were taking up entire rooms, and to make the situation especially humbling, every thing had to be soldered to every other thing, by hand. Kilby solved the problem by using a single piece of semiconductor material. He was awarded U.S. Patent 3,138,743 for “Miniaturized Electronic Circuits” in 1959. In 2000 he got the Nobel prize in physics.

My life has sprinted parallel to the advancement of silicon technology. I have been alive from the birth of the chip to the iPad. Heidegger, who was 69 when Kilby overthrew tyranny, had already written (tellingly?) about the relationship between authenticity and non-technical modes of existence. Sartre had thrown in the towel, declaring western culture hopelessly inauthentic, offering little hope for recovery. He was 53.  They didn’t know technology as we know technology. Somewhere along the personal time-line, a few years after Kilby’s chip,  I discovered Henry David Thoreau and his experiment in the woods.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…

I don’t wish to infer that technology makes for less authenticity. But, Thoreau, whose opinion I trust,  suggested a threat incubating in the pre-dawn of modern existence and I think I should pay heed. His existence, that existence which would drive him to the solitude of the woods, was primitive compared  to our  post-Kilby reality. But it’s only a matter of degrees, I suspect. The point being, add up enough degrees and you have an angle, angles stretch wide enough and before you know it,  you’re 180 degrees from the direction you wish to be headed.

I have no idea what to do about any of this, wondering if action is even warranted. I only worry, not having gone to Walden and not knowing if I am practicing resignation or not, that I will misstep and fumble awkwardly tripping into the/my future. Mostly, I think that is already the case.

The Limit of Anything is not a Natural Place

In Books, Reading, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Writers, Writing on May 6, 2010 at 2:54 pm

I’m told the key to writing a good blog is to know a subject and stick to it. A blog should be focused and appeal to an audience interested in the subject. Well, that’s two strikes against me.

What am I doing here–here being the blog (although “here” being life is also under consideration)–and why am I doing it? I’ve been toying with these questions. It’s my way of sorting things out, toying with them. I go to other blogs and they are about something. Politics, culture, travel, finance, and so on. I have nothing so sexy going for me as all that. This blog is about me writing about me. That is, recursively–it’s about writing (not the explicit discussion of, but the practice), and the reading behind the writing. Secondly, and thoroughly intertwined, it’s about a life, my life. Together they make something of which I am unsure. I am the student of that something, trying to be more sure.

On the writing side of the quest–and it is a quest–I have been enamored with the idea of writing fiction, the novel specifically, all my life. Being enamored of a thing does not make it so. Despite attempting to train for the long haul, as Hemingway admonished, I have no endurance. If a gene for genre exists, mine would be inherited from Montaigne, albeit in such a diluted form as hardly perceptible. I am an essayist. And to make matters worse, in this day and age of the navel-gazing memoirist, I, if pushed for a confession, am most guilty of committing the crime of the personal essay. There, I said it and feel better for it.

The reading behind the writing is found throughout the postings here. I’ve said it elsewhere, I am–and have been–a lot of things over the years. The one thing that remains, and steadily so, is me the reader.

If this were simple math, the denominator in this quest fraction, is my life. Can I understand it better? How? Here’s the framework I like to use: Socrates’s admonition: The unexamined life is not worth living. He did not  say, Answer the question of life; rather question it, examine it. He didn’t say, Develop a flow chart,  or create a matrix. There are no three-ring binders with tabs in this project. He exhorted, simply: Examine life. Accept nothing less than an adequate account. It is an open and expansive thought. Contrariwise, it is drilled into us from childhood, seek and find, question and answer, open and close. Those are closed equations, for lack of a better phrase. For me, the power of Socrates is the open equation: examine.

Often, for me, to examine is simply to be awake to life. If nature instills a sense of wonder, it is a function of examination to be aware of wonderment. Just as often, the notion of the examined life is less effortless and more grinding, a struggle to be more authentic. Authenticity is, in my math, the result of life multiplied by examination. Authenticity is the anthesis of complexity, I think, and is, as Sartre, said, at the limits of language. That is the grind. The limit of anything is not a natural place.

So, back to where I started, the nature of this blog. To summarize, it–the blog, “…the house…“–is the notebook in which I work out my quest to examine a life wishing to be authentic. My tools are ancient and simple: the words I cobble together.

What now?

“A great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up.” ~Albert Schweitzer

In Family, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers on April 24, 2010 at 9:56 pm

There is an extended scene towards the end of  25th Hour, the 2002 Spike Lee movie that captures my imagination. The Ed Norton character is reporting to prison in upstate New York, being driven there by his father, played by Brian Cox. In the scene, his father says, “Just say the word, say the word and we will take the GW Bridge and head west and start a new life.” The father describes this life the Ed Norton character is to carve out for himself, a life in which he will start completely fresh, grow old and never ever again come home. This notion has dogged me for some time. That is to say, long before watching this movie, the idea of starting over, taking a different approach, a reincarnation of sorts, has needled me. I’ve posted some notes on this previously and promise not to be redundant (I hope).

Schweitzer, photographed by the great Eugene Smith.

I don’t know exactly when, but the life of Albert Schweitzer came to my attention at a very early age. The Schweitzer pithy details are as follows: He had three distinct lives. One, Schweitzer was a world-class scholar of Biblical texts. His book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, a text still in print, set the standard for scholarship on the topic. His second life was that of a musician. In this incarnation, Schweitzer became an internationally recognized interpreter of Bach’s organ music. He traveled and performed throughout Europe, recording performances and writing books of Bach scholarship. Lastly, the third life, is the Eugene Smith image of the Doctor Schweitzer we recognize, (he had two Ph.Ds and an M.D.) the pith-helmeted doctor of the Congo, hellbent on building hospitals and curing malaria. I find Schweitzer and his life(s) hugely compelling.

How is it that some get so many chances? And how does one get more? Is it as simple as driving across the GW Bridge and heading west? Two years ago my son, Tim, grew weary of the congested helter-skelter life in the Mid-Atlantic. He loaded his truck with his belongings, his dog and headed west in the great American tradition. He didn’t know it was the great American tradition, but of course it is. Out out he drove and filling his gas tank in Colorado he looked up at the mountains, turned and looked down Main street to the end, turned again and looked up Main street to the other end and thought, This is it. He stayed and started over.

It is said the only way of attaining immortality in this life is to be present, to exist precisely in a moment, and in doing so, experience the cessation of time. I find this idea somehow akin to the notion of driving west with your father at the wheel, escaping prison and starting over. Or, loading up your truck and going out, away, with your dog and becoming someone else. But not entirely. Like the sunrise, immortality appears ripe in the promise of the new. But too the sun rises to overhead, then sets.

Regardless, the nature of things, I think, is such that we can do a lot with what we are dealt. We likely won’t end up in the Congo. We may not find ourselves in Colorado. But, closer to home, we start over all the time. On the cellular level we do it. The cells of the body replace themselves. It is self-defense. Depending on the cell type, pancreas, liver, brain, cells come, they go, faster, slower. They regenerate. Old ones expire, new ones are created. In summary, about every seven years (a reverse dog year) we are new–physically, that is.The ancient texts intoned that everything is and isn’t simultaneously. Not to reach too far afield, the point being, physically we are always freshening ourselves up, even as we grow old. Can we not manifest that on a larger scale?–(re)fresh, cure malaria?, even as the sun passes overhead and settles on the horizon. It is, of course, not so easy as all that. That’s talk and talk is, as the adage goes, not very expensive. When it comes down to it, it’s not really so much about the change-up. It is more about the desire, the stretching, I think.

I see the heavy hand of the existentialists in all this, the idea that the person is nothing but what he or she makes of existence–the notion that existence comes first (not I think, there I am, but I am therefore I think). Regardless of how one comes down philosophically, there is that other great American tradition, the one of rolling your sleeves up and making something of yourself. Perhaps it is no more complicated than the constant effort of not letting the rock roll back over you.


I re-read all this and think of Montaigne. But “what do I know?” he said.

Masterclass of a Life Well Lived

In Creativity, The Examined Life, Writers, Writing on December 2, 2009 at 12:36 am

A few years ago I attempted to write a work of extended fiction. I’d written a few short stories and essays, some of which found their way into print. I had been following Hemingway’s advice to ready myself for the long haul by working up to it, like a boxer training for a bout–or something appropriately Hemingwayesque to that manly effect. So, I began this “extended fiction” (why is it that the word novel seems so daunting and intimidating?) and set a course to explore the only, for me, truly compelling theme. To wit, How should a life be lived?

Once, many years ago, in a distant existence, in a parallel universe, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book about entrepreneurship. I had walked in those shoes for a while with a modicum of success and someone foolishly thought I actually knew something about the subject. I wrote my chapter and adorned it with a awkward title about which I am now embarrassed. In essence, the chapter title, spoke to my belief that creativity trumps everything else, talent, motivation, timing and all the rest of it. In business, and in life, creativity rules.

Getting back to the novel, my character, a successful dot com-er (I was writing at the height of the dot com bubble) decides one day to cash out and hit the road, to set out, as Twain said, for territories unknown. This guy was the perfect foil. He had plenty of resources–i.e. money–no commitments, a sense of self that reached beyond his present situation, albeit however well-stoked he found himself, and nothing but time on his hands. The premise is quite simple: What would you do with your life if you could do anything you wanted? It is the most profoundly creative question a person can ask. At some point in your life-block of Carrera marble gets dropped across your path and someone hands you a hammer and chisel. What do you do? How do you chisel out a life? How do you create it? I didn’t know what I’d do, so I wrote a novel to figure it out.

The ultimate creative assignment is the masterclass in a life well lived. I wanted, in the writing of the novel, to tackle this most personal of challenges. And here’s what happened. Nothing. Nothing happened. My guy, the character in my novel, having money and time and motivation, well, he was a bust. I could develop no creative tension in the narrative. In other words, I couldn’t answer the question, what would I do, if I could do anything I wished with my life. Was there no creative tension to my existence?

This is not an exercise in navel gazing. (I dread the cliché above all else.) So the question above will remain purely rhetorical. My existence and its creative tension, or lack thereof, is of no matter. Here is the point. Life need be carved out of raw material–created, in essence–to be, upon Socratic inspection, well designed. It ain’t gonna just happen. Sartre said that everything in life must submit to art. Creativity is an expressed solution to an unasked question. My protagonist had no challenges, and therefore his life lacked the luster of a well-polished coat of creativity.

Make of it what you will. But know this: the act of creation is the purest of expression. Draped across the robust shoulders of life, it is at once profound and beautiful.