For humanity to evolve in a positive and authentically human way we must be able to affirm a common purposiveness for all. In order to do that, we need to answer the big question: “Why are we here?”, with the emphasis on the WE.
This is a question that contains a heavy theological load, as it has historically been the role of religions to try and answer it, so in order to pull it away from religious associations we could firstly open up the subject ‘we’ to include all conscious and rational forms of life that could exist and so rephrase the ‘big’ question in a more scientifically sounding manner: “Why is their intelligent life in the Universe?”
Not that we expect science to be able to give a definite answer to this question, in fact we presume it can’t, but we do think if it is armed with philosophical, logical speculation, it could fashion a new, metaphysical scenario to build a positive narrative of purpose from. From contemporary cosmological speculation science points to a quantum-mechanics kind of metaphysics that approaches the evolution of the Universe as a wilful process, not necessarily planned as such, but moving towards a logical evolution that gravitates toward purposefulness.
Before science will be able to definitely prove any reason for intelligence, however, philosophy is needed to open a path for that speculative investigation and pave the way forward and attack the big question from a slightly different angle – not of ‘why’ directly but primarily ‘how’ and then ‘what for’. So, firstly, How is the existence of rational beings in the Universe possible? And secondly, What could the purpose of intelligent life be in the Universe?
The answer to the first question rests in the idea of evolution and that has to be examined scientifically. The religious idea of a Creator that opened its mind and let in light and a paradise world came into being populated by all the animals and plants and human beings we know of today has no scientific basis. The evolution of the Universe from pure energy into complex material forms with consciousness capable of practising art and science and developing technologies capable of shaping the world to satisfy their own needs is the end-result of a painstakingly slow development from absolute simplicity to incredible complexity. We are beings that know we are here because of that gradual, cause and effect development into complexity. One could say we are a result of a seemingly perpetual process of incremental intricacy, and, as far as we know, the human brain is the most naturally complex material phenomenon in this Universe. An intricate organ that is constantly producing more and more complexity. Knowing this, we can now ask ‘why?’. What is this complexity we possess for? Why would such a process of creating such complexity exist in our Universe at all?
To answer this we need to think of what the most basic purpose of the Universe itself could be, the answer to which lies in what it is.
The Universe is everything, and by being everything it is the antithesis of nothing. In theological and philosophical terms, the Universe is Being, and that which is not in the Universe is non-Being. The pre-Socratic Parmenides argued that the totality of the Universe was something complete and perfect, an idea reflected in monotheistic concepts of God, but science tells us that this is not so. The Universe has evolved from very chaotic conditions and continues to evolve – Being is a developing, qualitative thing. The Being of a Universe simply made up of nothing more than cold space, hot balls of gas and spinning rocks, is not a very interesting thing to know about, especially as there is nothing in such a Universe to know about it. To be but not be known even by yourself, is the most pointless kind of existence. From this image of pointlessness, however, we can derive a concept of ultimate purposiveness and affirm that the ultimate goal of Being is for its existence to know and be known.
So, in order for this more purposeful form of an aware-Being to come about, then the Universe needs to create the possibility of that awareness. This must happen via the creation of the possibility of it being named. Let’s call this naming process The Word. The Thing, thereby, which is the original, pre-sapiens state of Being, must allow a naming to happen by creating circumstances that permit The Word to be brought into Being and by so doing allowing the Thing-itself to be known, interpreted through and preserved by The Word.
This is the purpose of Being, a purpose which is necessarily engendered by its lack. Without The Word the Universe (Being) is qualitatively deficient and is closer to non-Being than Being itself.
Through The Word the Thing becomes the Universe as a Being imbued with qualities and purpose becomes rooted in the interaction between the Universe and the conscious, rational, evolving intelligences that cohabit, discover and define it.
In order to arrive where we are now, with someone thinking the Universe in words that are communicated to other organisms capable of understanding those words, the Universe has to have been imbued with the purpose of qualitative Being. A purposeful will which has been able to create conditions allowing sapiens organisms with brains that are complex enough to create language, to evolve in it, name it, and construct communicable explanations for it that will uncover the secrets of it and allow for the development of technologies that will develop the understanding of the Universe further, with the goal of achieving total comprehension with the Universe in the distant future. For this reason, using theological terms, humanity is sacred in the Universe.
It is within this continually evolving development that our authentic purposiveness lies, and authentic human fulfilment can only be genuinely found through the pursuit of this development unto a complete awareness of Being. If our consciousness and language make us sacred, we have a sacred duty to develop our common intelligence (the accumulation of all human intelligence) to the fullest.
Meaning depends on purpose to furbish it with sense. If we are to be able to say what the meaning of life in society is, then we need to examine the purpose of the society itself.
What is the purpose of our society? By answering this question we should be able to find clues regarding what will make our lives meaningful. Nevertheless, the answers that spring to mind might seem ugly. What happens if we don’t really like their ugliness? Are we bad citizens for rejecting the ugly purposes of our society? If we don’t lie the purposes of society, how can our lives within it make any sense to us? And, if society is non-sensical, how can we ever be expected to make our lives truly meaningful?
In a global marketplace society of ugly purposes, where can we escape to in order to pursue a meaningful existence again? And, if we can’t escape, what can we do to make the ugliness pretty?
Only once we have properly grasped something can we begin to judge it. Likewise, only when we understand something can we know if it is beautiful.
So, beauty can only be found by trying to grasp the things before us, but also, approaching this idea from the opposite direction, we can say that understanding phenomena helps us to preserve the beauty of it.
Understanding is a method for transcending the essential ephemerality of existence.
PREMIS ONE: The greater is the unification of human commerce, the greater too is the diminution of judgements, and subsequently freedom.
PREMIS TWO: The greater is the unification of communication, the greater is the increase of judgements and subsequently freedom.
If both these statements are correct, what does this say about our globalised world that both expands and unites commerce and communication?
Neo-liberal economists argue that commerce is information (e.g., the marketplace can be read and interpreted) and is therefore communication. However, we need to understand that this kind of process is really a unification of communication through a filter, the filter of commerce, which is primarily elitist and autocratic because the information about the market is only read from the point-of-view of the top and is always reductionist. The increase of judgements provided by a united global economy do not therefore lead to any growth of freedom on a human scale. It is too burdened by its dangerous dogmas of continual growth and perpetual consumerism.
For any globalisation process to engender freedom, therefore, it would need to firstly liberate global communication from the confinement of the marketplace. For the world to be global and free, we need to create a new kind of economy modelled on the virtues of communication, rather than enslaving information and communication to the benefits of commerce.
1. THE AESTHETIC PATH FORWARD FOR HUMAN ADVANCEMENT
The principle reason for the existence of human societies is the need to ensure human survival. Once we can cover our needs for survival, and only once those needs are covered, human beings are allowed to make choices. Freedom, therefore, is conditioned by the obligation of having the problem of survival properly cared for. It is enclosed in spaces of time that are not occupied by the chores required to guarantee our continued existence. These survival-task liberated spaces are commonly called periods of free-time. It is the temporal area in which we are able to apply our faculties of judgement to activities and concerns that have nothing to do with the problems of survival.
Because of this basic dynamic, underlying all complex human societies, the educational programmes of our called civilised communities have to deal initially with teaching survival skills and secondly with the fields of activity emerging in the area of freedom, which is the space of freedom to make judgements, which, in principle, are high-aesthetic judgements, by which we mean judgements that are free from the burdens of survival needs.
In our civilisation, this simple separation between the necessity for survival and freedom from those necessities, has been complicated through the development of economics. By confining our sapiens instincts to the needs of the homo economicus, humanity has been moulded into a being capable of survival in the complex structure of the economic matrix. Within this area dominated by the marketplace, time spaces enveloping survival needs and those other spaces of freedom are no longer clearly defined. Economics has spread necessity out rather than reducing it, and this of course pushes survival needs into the spaces of free time, putting stress on freedom and diminishing the system’s functionality in an anti-civilising way. If civilisation should be geared to reducing our concerns for survival in order to liberate our time for judgement, then we must begin to accept that our current civilisation is not a civilising process at all. The spreading out of necessity occurs through our dependency on money to survive. A dependency that encourages necessity to seep into the area of the superfluous. In fact, the homo economicus is never satisfied with the mere covering of authentic survival needs, he or she needs the superfluity of an ever-expanding survival-need field, and is prepared to sacrifice freedom in order to dedicate themselves to gathering the superfluous, in order to obtain more and more superfluity.
Superfluity closes doors into the area of high-aesthetics judgements and by doing so actually reduces freedom as well by enslaving us to new, superfluous necessities, many of which are falsely imagined to be necessary for survival. This is of course a decadence. The superfluous world is always a decadent one.
To be human (sapiens) is to know that one is. The principle desire of all living things is to keep living, what we call the survival instinct and the first profoundly felt conscious desire of human beings is the first time one is consciously aware that one wants to keep living. A desire and will that is constantly with us, albeit in a subconscious way. Even the choice of eating an ice-cream has a profound, subconscious basis to it, which is incipiently one of judgement and therefore moral: I want to eat something in order to energise my existence or even perhaps survive (my hunger indicates that I must) but if this is so why not eat something that will be enjoyable; if I am going to survive in this world I may as well do it in an enjoyable way, by eating ice-creams for example, although then again, the nutritional value of ice-creams is limited, whilst the sugars and fats in an ice-cream could depreciate my health, so perhaps I should eat something else … Through this example of ice-cream eating we can see how judgement is embedded into our world of desire. We are no longer subject to the necessity of survival alone – although the ice-cream carries a vestige of survival it transcends it. Ice-cream exists not for survival but for pleasure, and so it is basically an aesthetic decision that we are making when we desire it, complicated in an aesthetic way by the decision we need to make when we choose the flavour. So, beyond the necessity for survival we immediately enter the terrain of freedom and of aesthetics. Yes, what we are asserting here is strange: no-one, surely, could seriously consider ice-cream eating an aesthetic act, and yet, really we can see no reason why it should not be.
There is certainly a great difference between Van Gogh’s decision for the colours and brush strokes applied to his Starry Night and the decision someone makes as to the topping given to their vanilla ice. A difference that resides primarily in the purpose of the result embedded in the decision, and secondly in the permanence contrasted with the ephemerality of the outcome in accord with that result.
For example, the purpose of the decisions related to ice-cream eating are related to the pleasure of the senses (primarily taste) in what will essentially be an ephemeral event. Ice-cream eating is like watching theatre, the pleasure and the beauty of it reside in the moment of its consumption (and, if it is good, in the desire for that moment to endure). Memories will linger and more ice-creams will probably be enjoyed later on, each recollection competing with an ideal reconstruction of something which is considered the best of all the ice-creams ever consumed.
For the artisan creating the ices, the ephemerality is a bonus. His or her purpose is to sell as many ice-creams as possible and his or her skill is to create a positive memory and through this a desire to repeat the experience in the minds of those who try one of these works of art.
Yes, the ice-cream is a work of art, but the purpose behind it is the profit obtained by selling as many examples as possible. It is art in the world of the homo economicus whose basic purpose is accumulation of wealth. The process strives for a permanence, but a permanence (wealth) gained through replication (commercialisation). To be successful, each batch of strawberry ice-cream must taste like the previous one. Of course, the art of ice-cream making is vastly different to what Van Gogh was doing.
Van Gogh painted in the realm of beauty, to produce that which defies the ephemerality of the experience of its discovery. In other words, he wanted to make paintings that people would want to be preserved and made available for all to see, forever. The art of Van Gogh is the art of creating an original singularity which demands to remain throughout time. The Starry Night can be copied, but it is not the same when it is, and the informed spectator knows this and will yearn to experience the beauty of the original.
This art is hugely different to ice-cream making. Its purpose lies in perfecting an original masterpiece that demands permanence. It is anti-replication. However, despite the difference in value between the Starry Night painting and ice-cream, let us not presume to say that one is more valuable than the other. The loss of ice-cream or the loss of the Starry Night would be equally disappointing for humanity. The homo economicus could make a calculation and show us that more money has been made from the selling ice-creams than from all of the auction sales of all of Van Goch’s paintings, and conclude from this that ice-creams are more valuable, whilst art lovers would demand the originality and impossible repeatability of Van Gogh’s opus elevates his art’s value far beyond that of any ice-cream, but again, let us stress the idea that the loss of either would be a tremendous disappointment and always a sad loss for humanity itself. Humanity is the sum of what it has created and managed to preserve.
However, in order to understand the real, abysmal difference between making ice-cream and the works of Van Gogh, we need to return to our original premises that: (a) artistic choices are judgements; (b) artistic choices are a demonstration of freedom; and, add a new element (c) judgements are formed through questioning.
From the latter, we can easily find the difference between manufacturing ice-cream and painting Starry Night, we merely have to ask ourselves: What questions are being asked here? Once we do, we find that we have to ask quite different ones. The questions involved in ice-cream making are centred around what pleases the senses?, whilst the questions that Van Gogh was asking were metaphysical and existential ones as Starry Night was painted during a crisis period when Van Gogh was suffering from hallucinations with acute depression and suicidal thoughts. Ice-cream needs to please us, but it will not actually change us (except perhaps to make us fat). On the other hand, Van Gogh was examining who we are and what our relationship with the universe is, and the answers to that kind of questioning can change us – they can even improve us.
Through these examples we have found two vastly different purposes for aesthetic judgements: (i) to please the senses, and (ii) to change and improve us by enquiring into our existential nature. The first has no pretensions of changing or improving us, only rather to make our experiences of the world more pleasurable. It is the kind of aesthetics that can be most profitable for business ventures and its creations are usually elaborated with the idea of a massive replication aimed at enormous sales and profits. The art of ice-cream making is profoundly commercial and aesthetically pornographic. It is a form of aesthetic prostitution.
Van Gogh’s kind of questioning, however, hardly ever brings great profit for its creator (but then again, that was never that artist’s intention). The work involved is centred around creating original works. It does not forbid replication (in literature, for example, replication of the original is a normal and desired result), but its replication is never the main purpose behind the creation as it is in ice-cream making. If it is involved in the sensual realm, it will be erotic rather than pornographic. It abhors prostitution.
That which pleases the senses is far more successful than that which strives to change and improve us. This is due to the replicating nature of sensually pleasurable objects, and also because immediate, ephemeral pleasure is far easier to produce and its creations are more visible and perceivable than anything designed with the intention of durable satisfaction or long-term improvements. Likewise, the will to luxuriate is one of humanity’s strongest drives, and this, mixed with the capitalist system of consumerism and conservative political ideologies that concentrate on the day-to-day experience of life rather than a progressive view of the future, traps society in the present continuous moment where the ephemeral can thrive.
Our activities are heavily constrained by social issues as well as the grip that economic power has on those same factors. The societies we are born into are already stringently organised and individuals have to learn how to interpret the flow of those societies in order to be able to navigate themselves through the tricky currents of their waters. There is a public interpretation of reality that must be accepted by the individual in order to fit in. This interpretation is nearly always conservative and any artist who tries to see beyond the mask of our public-opinion created reality is rare, while the one who is actually able to step outside and truly see ways of changing and improving our reality is much rarer still.
Our social interactions only seem possible whilst they remain superficial and this is made possible through the profusion of small talk, which is the normal way of communicating. Small talk is in fact a release, a way of interacting with others and touching on topics without ever really developing our understanding of what we are dealing with, which means that small talk protects us against the need to ever practice the most human of all our skills: our ability to know.
It is as if we are ashamed of our most original organ and the Judaic myth of the expulsion from Paradise could be seen as a justification of this otherwise seemingly inexplicable shame. Original sin lies in the act of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, which symbolically represents the human brain: “From there thou must not eat!” It is as if God gave Adam and Eve a magnificent mind and then said: “Thou must not use this mind.” To make it honest there should be a verse in Genesis that says: “And when they had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge Adam and Eve felt great shame every time they had an original thought. And God gave them Small Talk to hide their shame.”
Our language is so confined by social factors and constrained by our fear of sounding too profound that it forces us to make banal conversation, full of generalisations and untruths, and by doing so, pulling us away from the essence of ourselves as human beings, as homo sapiens sapiens, the species that knows.
Most people will want a good life and, whilst the definition will be subjectively formed creating millions of interpretations, this idea of good could be generally interpreted as meaning a comfortable life, or at least one lacking in too many uncomfortable experiences. Of course, these concepts of good and comfortable are totally conditioned by relativity and their semantic inflections will change in each person’s lifetime according to the opportunities offered them, but in general it is a conservative outlook based on making the best of what is available for reproduction rather than making what can be available better and the better things that could be possible a concrete reality. To achieve the latter requires changing what is in order to produce what will be, while the former adapts to the present continuous. Only when what is seems bad or wrong, or lacking, or dangerous, will a large part of society be inspired to change it for something better. But in the rare moments when that does occur, the small talk also changes and becomes deeper, deepened by indignation and a desire for improvement.
Heidegger said that conversation was “participating in the revealing”. Through conversation we reveal what we know and discover things that others know. Even small talk participates in this revealing process. Conversation therefore has the potential to either reinforce reality or change and improve it, or make it worse. What we talk about is an aesthetic question, or a question of judgement. It can replicate what it is or change it. It can support what is, or condemn it. It can be a motor for support, or one of demolition.
Kant’s main work on aesthetics is The Critique of Judgement, which is basically about aesthetics and purposefulness and we think that Nietzsche would have had to have had Kant’s associations somewhere in his mind when using the term in Beyond Good and Evil, after all the bracketed note he makes defining the falsest judgements as that to which synthetic judgements a priori belong, is using purely Kantian terminology.
Kant’s book begins with a Critique of Aesthetic Judgement and an analysis of beauty. Kant argues that it is important to understand that something is beautiful only because we judge it to be so and that it cannot be beautiful until that judgement is made, and this is the basic idea that Nietzsche is leafing through in The Will to Power when he argues that, despite the idea that the world astounds us, we basically ignore the fact that there is nothing awesome at all in the world except that which we ourselves infuse it with. Kant attributed four distinguishing features to aesthetic judgements: subjectivity (that the beauty and ugliness we find in the world is disinterested and therefore its appreciation depends on our subjective interpretations); universality; necessity; and purposiveness. Now what Nietzsche does in his own critique of religion, is stress the subjectivity without completely falling into the traps of Berkeleyan idealism, as seen when he ironically makes his hero Zarathustra cry out to the sun: “Great star! What would your happiness be, if you had not those for whom you shine!”[i] The great star, the sun, exists, but its meaning can only come through the meaning granted it by the sapiens observer, and this is what Kant was saying. The sun is only happy because we, or someone, perceives it that way, and, on a larger, metaphysical scale, this means that the Universe is given meaning through being perceived and being analysed judgementally. Or, in other words, the meaningfulness of the Universe is an aesthetic, judgemental construct that we are playing an active role in – and it is this awesome idea, not the idea of God, that needs to inspire humanity if we are ever able to overcome our indifference and incredulity towards human advancement in the world.
(CONTINUED IN PART THREE
[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA, Prologue, Section 1
In his Critique of Religion in The Will to Power, Nietzsche begins with an original insight into the psychological nature of aesthetics (the beauty and sublimitybestowed upon real and imaginary things), calling it our fairest apology[i], and insinuating that through our admiration and worship of things we are actually humbling ourselves as we do not want to admit to ourselves that the world is as it is because we alone have created it to be that way. The idea he expounds here is a kind of Berkeleyan (albeit atheistic), subjective idealism, that the world is the creation of the (human) perceiver, and that it does not take a meaningful shape until the perceiver begins to understand and define what is perceived. But Nietzsche’s original twist to this old idea is that the awesome power granted by the realisation of this concept is, in fact, paradoxically, an ultimately debilitating force. As Nietzsche says: “it raises in him (humanity) a doubt about his own person: he does not dare to think himself the cause of this astonishing feeling – and so he posits a stronger person, a divinity, to account for it.”[ii]Or, in other words, Nietzsche argues that because we cannot cope with the responsibility of our power as creators, we need to invent the idea of God as a greater than human power in the Universe. In this way, the God we make can bear the brunt of the responsibility of creation, while we humans get on with leading the irresponsible kind of life we enjoy the most.
Now, although Nietzsche never actually uses the term aesthetics in these passages, the beauty and sublimitybestowed upon real and imaginary things should almost certainly be considered a simple definition of an aesthetic process, and so the association being made here is between aesthetics and religion, and that is another great Nietzschean insight. While he makes his proposal in order to simply critique humanity and religion, we have found a much deeper insight buried here. Nietzsche is describing a psychological attitude which not only colours our attitude to religion, it also effects the question of our capacity for freedom and, because of that, inhibits our ability to make true moral and social progress in the world.
If Nietzsche was right, embedded in the development of both religions and aesthetics lies an enormous irresponsibility – the denial of ourselves as supreme creators. This denial exposes a human immaturity, a fear of accepting the responsibility of the awesome nature of what we are, and a nihilistic pessimism that negates any attempts to develop our human potential to its fullest. Likewise, it is the fundamental reason behind the domination of classes: by creating a mythical idea that we are subjugated to the will of the gods or God it opens the doors to the possibility for one section of the tribe, state, empire to dominate the rest of us by taking control of that subjection and exploiting it.
This process is quite easy to discern when we compare the development of the priestly-caste and witchdoctors into the mammoth monotheistic church congregations we have today alongside the evolution of Wealth and the great class-divide between rich and poor, but while this exploitation of the human fear of our awesome creativity is easy enough to find in the history of religions, what does it tell us about the history of aesthetics and, ultimately, about what aesthetics potentially means. While in these passages, Nietzsche is merely pointing to the fact that both the religious and aesthetic sense of awe originate in the same negation of human responsibility, by doing this he opens up a can of philosophical worms that reverberate back through his earlier writings on aesthetics, creating a seemingly contradictory dialectic within his own arguments … but then, being seemingly contradictory is a typically Nietzschean trait; it is what makes his writings so interesting and awesome.
To unravel this contradiction, let us start with section 4 of Beyond Good and Evil. In that passage he discusses the virtues of false judgements: “The falseness of a judgement is to us not necessarily an objection to a judgement … The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving … the falsest judgements (to which synthetic judgements a priori belong) are the most indispensable to us, that without granting as true the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a continual falsification of the world by means of numbers, mankind could not live – that to renounce false judgements would be to renounce life, would be to deny life.”[iii] From this fragment of his earlier writing, his earlier thinking seems to be a complete antithesis of what he states later: if by judgement he is talking about aesthetics and religion (don’t worry, this link between judgement and aesthetics will be explained in due course) , instead of seeing a tragic human irresponsibility, he sees it as the most indispensable trait for humanity’s survival.
For those who know Nietzsche this contradiction probably comes as no surprise, he was antithetical to philosophical systems and his thoughts are mainly expressed in aphoristic or short-essay-long snippets which mitigate cohesion, but why are we presuming there is any relationship between the Critique of Religion from the Will to Power and passage 4 of Beyond Good and Evil at all?
If we look at the final part of passage 4 the idea seems even less plausible. The section continues with: “To recognise untruth as a condition of life: that, to be sure, means to resist customary value-sentiments in a dangerous fashion; and a philosophy which ventures to do so places itself, by that fact alone, beyond good and evil.”[iv]
This seemingly quirky idea of the indispensability of false judgements is suddenly exalted by championing the title of the entire book; insinuating that the central idea around this collection of essays is the motivation for a new philosophical thinking that can embrace untruth and by doing so create the kind of thought that can transcend the concepts of good and evil.
However, the subtle ironies that this passage is full of become clearer when seen in light of the seemingly contradictory passage from The Will to Power: the untruth of Beyond Good and Evil is the falsity of the conventional truths created by religion and aesthetics to “conceal from himself (humanity) that it was he who created what he admired.” In this way it becomes clear that the untruth is the revealing of an older truth long hidden by the human failure to embrace our own awesome capacities.
Seen from our 21st century perspective, Nietzsche’s thoughts take another twist. The nihilism that Nietzsche had resolved himself to as a negative but necessary state that had be endured before any revolution of the Overman (Übermensch) could come about, has now become entrenched in our global civilisation with tremendously negative consequences for any harmonious development of humanity. Instead of paving the way for the Overman, the nihilist century behind us has inspired an upsurge in religious fanaticisms and evangelical crusades that threaten to become a new dominant power in the chaotic condition of this budding century. In fact, what we are witnessing now is a tendency to reverse the process of false judgements that Nietzsche envisaged. An irony over Nietzsche’s own ironies in which religions use their lies to reinstate the old untruth, injecting it into the gaping vacuum opened by the unbearable relativity of the everything-is-nothing truth of the nihilistic world. In 2020, the recognition of untruth as a way of life is now the normal state of things, but there is no positive transcendence beyond good and evil here. By embracing lies as a way of life we have thrown civilisation into an existence-threatening, barbaric state.
But the irony of this situation does not stop there: Nietzsche was right, the only way forward for humanity is its awakening into the realisation that we truly are the great bestowers of judgement on reality and that the Universe is meaningful because we are able to give it that meaning; that it is time for humanity to stop apologising for itself and be itself; but that this step forward is impeded by the nihilistic civilisation that Nietzsche himself has been an integral part of creating.
The question now is: Can the awakening allowing a great revaluation of purpose still take place and save humanity from itself? But first we have to deal with another query: What does any of this have to do with aesthetics? To answer that we need to look back to an older pre-Nietzschean philosophy and sift Nietzsche’s concepts through the sieve of Kant.
(But that will be dealt with in Part Two …)
[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, THE WILL TO POWER, Ed. Kaufmann, Vintage, New York, 1968, p. 85
Here, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are enduring an enormous moral crisis that is exemplified and amplified by the Donald Trump presidency in the USA.
The Trump phenomena has given us a perfect antithesis-model of the universal good, in which self-love (and self-pity) came to the fore as the most powerful driving force of the most formidable self-loving and self-pitying nation in the world. That such a super-narcissist like Trump could be elected in the nation that is the (self-proclaimed) leader of the democratic world, not only highlights the fundamental flaws in the USA’s electoral system, it shows how dangerously accepting of flagrantly immoral discourses our self-loving, self-pitying societies have either become or are capable of developing into.
That such supposedly moral and even puritanical groups as the evangelical congregations in the USA have been able to embrace the megalomaniacal candidate so warmly and enthusiastically, reveals their own profoundly shallow relationship to universal love as well as their complete lack of appreciation of any objective concept of moral good. Even the Christian teachings of moral uprightness and universal love become swamped by their self-loving/self-pitying support of their self-loving/self-pitying champion.
But while the evangelicals highlight the problem, they are only the tip of the global pandemic of nihilist self-love and pity. Moral law, if it exists at all in this nihilistic global village, has deteriorated into a state that gives ultimate credence to self-love/self-pity as a sufficient reason for duty and action. Rather than striving for the highest good in the world, those who once laid claim to the world’s moral high-ground have collapsed into the wreckage of self-loving and self-pitying patriotisms.
Likewise, virtue and happiness have become corrupted into forms of decadence and perversion. Nothing comes out of the narcissist’s office that remotely resembles virtue anymore.
But there is a positive side to Trumpism too for, through his absolute lack of morality that has highlighted the antithesis against a universally good world, he has also illuminated an image of another possibility, and his tremendous immorality has put a spot light on what an impeccably good society might be like. The very existence of a seemingly impossible entity like the immoralist, malefactor President Trump has made the antithetic element of a universally good system, which has always been considered impractical, now also seem not only desirable but possible. The positive lesson to be learned from the Trump phenomena is that if a dystopia can be made a reality, then so can Utopia be brought about.
Necessity makes the universal good an imperative, and the existence of its antithesis demonstrates the achievability of that imperative. But to get back on the road to goodness and universal love it is not to defeat Trump and what he represents in an election, we have to firstly evolve out of the nihilist state that our self-loving/self-pitying world has sunk into, embracing rational, logical truth to combat the relativity of lies, and promoting authentically humanist values over all attempts to separate humanity into races, nationalities or the politics of segregating identities. The concept of humanity is an all-inclusive ideal and once the whole is embraced the idea of the inclusivity of its parts becomes a non-issue. Humanistic purposes such as knowing, caring for the rest of humanity and the world, and the drive to improve the human condition and develop our enormous creative instincts are needed to temper and vanquish the perverting weaknesses of all self-loving/self-pitying desires.
Language allows us to give meaning to our existence, and meaning is a bridge between existence and purpose.
Because of this, only sapiens organisms that possess a language can be creatures of purpose.
This does not mean, however, that the meaningful construct created by language necessarily has to produce purposiveness. Even with a deep understanding of the meaningfulness of human activity in the world the purpose of the word itself alludes us.
This is because the reasons for things are as numerous as the things themselves and all their parts, but not any of those reasons on their own give us any indication of real purposiveness.
But, how can this be? If existence and purpose are bridged by meaning, why isn’t that bridge a clear enough path to understand what lies on either side of it? What is the difference between meaning and purpose in this case?
If meaning comes through language, we are talking about the understanding of things provided by language, primarily through the naming of stuff (physical objects and mental concepts) and secondly through our linguistic capacity to formulate questions about things and find answers to those questions.
Once we have a language structure capable of providing an inquisitive mechanism we can search for an understanding of all things through the formulation of questions about them.
Authentic purposiveness is concerned with questions aimed at the totality of things as a singularity, or of the experience of the total, human singularity within the greater singularity of the Universe. Authentic purposiveness is related to metaphysics and the questions concerning the potential scope of human beings in the Universe.
We can discover what something is, and, by naming it we can preserve it and make it easy to recognise when we find it again or remember it. Likewise, by observing things or by using them or experimenting with them, or by learning about them from others with experience of them, we can know what they are for, where they have come from, or where to find them. Even things that no longer exist can be rediscovered through documents written about them or by talking to witnesses, or communicating with others who have talked to witnesses, or through photos or drawings. Some things seem easy to understand, like doors and tables; so easy that we do not even need to think about them. Their purpose is self-explanatory. Some other things of which we know beforehand what they are used for and which we take for granted, like televisions and phones, have complex technological motors that need instruction manuals in order for us to decipher how they operate. Cars need a driving course to learn how to manipulate them and musical instruments require hours of practice, study, and accumulative experience in order to make them sound harmoniously and be able to create musical forms with them. However, when we examine everything as a singularity in order to ask the big question, what is it all for?, certainty seems to crumble within our very minds.
Traditionally this is the area of gods and God; of myths and faiths, as if any answer can be good enough if you believe in it because the important thing, traditionally, is to have an answer, and really any answer will do as long as it is convincing. To make it more convincing, metaphysics turned to logic, which complicated things because logic can be complicating. Then, when any answer was now no longer good enough, we preferred no answer at all. God was pronounced dead and metaphysics died with It. If we really cannot know, then why try to know?
But let us return to the idea of meaning as a bridge metaphor. Through it we see that (i) meaning is a natural end result of existence and thinking itself, and (ii) the meaning that language invests our lives with drives us in singular direction that terminates in purpose. Meaning is dependent on a concept, object or an act making sense, but the sense of any concept, object or act can only be determined by considering its purpose.
When we stop looking for it our Sapiens qualities, of knowing, thinking, and questioning, lose their driving energy. Nihilism threatens all progress because it negates the drive that produces progress, which is purpose. As living creatures, we struggle to survive, and as Sapiens we need to know what that survival is meant for; but also, as Sapiens we struggle to give a purpose to our lives that transcends mere survival. It is because we need purpose to vindicate our evolution and progress that we need to make purposiveness a central feature of our culture and our societies.
Authentic purpose gives us a reason for language; a reason for meaning; a reason for thinking; a reason for being.
Purpose is also a measure of meaning. That which is imbued with more purpose is more meaningful and that which lacks purpose is meaningless. But, if this is the case, the difference between meaning and purpose has become muddied again, hasn’t it?
Meaning can define a phenomena and tell us what it is and even what it is for in the immediate sense of that term, but purposiveness points in the direction of an end result to the phenomena, to what it is ultimately here for, to its true vocation or destiny, if you like.
Meaning is discovered through scientific enquiry, whereas purposiveness is found through philosophical questioning via the results of the original scientific enquiry.
Meaning reveals how the world is; purpose shows us how it can progress and develop.
Meaning is factual; purpose is creative.
For this reason, purposiveness is tied to aesthetics, and through aesthetics to judgement, freedom and the eternal.
Ugliness shares the element of discovery with beauty, but opposes it in the sense that it is that which cannot bear to be discovered, or that its discovery is an unbearable experience. Art can therefore use ugliness to amplify the impact of discovery – the feeling of rejection for something is more powerful and obvious than an attraction.
We want ugliness to be an ephemeral discovery and the prolongation of ugliness can have interesting psychological effects on the beholder that artists can manipulate and exploit. Likewise, as we saw with beauty, the impact of discovery is a waning phenomena and a lengthy exposure to ugliness begins to render it more bearable. To create horror, for example, the discovery of the monster must be as fleeting as possible. The more we are exposed to the beast, the more the discovery melts into a normality, taming the beastliness, and, if the artist wants to, the initial terror can be rendered even desirable. Perhaps the most classic example of this is the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, especially Jean Cocteau’s magnificent film version of that tale.