The Anxiety of Loss and the Anxiety of Meaning: Part Two

farewell to summer

This is a two part series. Part One, “Anxiety and Loss”, posted yesterday.

Part Two: Rationality and the Anxiety of Meaning

 

While one formal characteristic of human life—that of desires and ends—prompts the anxiety of loss, we can see now how the other, rationality, renders us vulnerable to the anxiety of meaning. Rationality involves reflection on our ends that in turn can bring about the anxiety of meaning. In reflecting on them we may either approve or disapprove of them. We may, for example, take our ends to be valuable and thus delight in the bliss of pursuing conscious valuable life. But we may also fall into despair in realizing that ends we held valuable and labored to secure are in fact of no value. Thus, one may realize that a project one was committed to (e.g., promoting communism or nation-building), is, in fact, misguided and valueless; such realization can be devastating. However, such realizations do not in themselves constitute the anxiety of meaning. Rather than residing in the realization that one end or another has no value, the anxiety of meaning consists in recognizing that such realization is always a possibility; that just as I realize now that my enormous efforts to become a Sudoku champion were in vain because I see no value in being a Sudoku champion, similarly, it is always possible that I may realize that my other ends are of no value. Even worse, realizing we cannot ground values in reasons, leads us to recognize that value and worth cannot be secured and fortified; that it is always possible to lose sight of that which once seemed of worth to us. For, after all, rational justifications are finite, and if we are asked to provide them in support of the value we see in our ends, they will eventually give out and we are left without rational grounds to hold these ends valuable. Our very capacity to rationally reflect on the value of our ends, then, leads to the realization that our values are never fully grounded and secure.

 

If the story of Job symbolizes loss, Ecclesiastes epitomizes meaninglessness. When King Solomon lamented “vanity of vanities; all is vanity” he was a man with as much confidence, achievement and possession as one can hope for. Hence, clearly, he laments not the loss of that which he loves and values but rather the absence of worth and value; the waning and depletion of value from the world. In the absence of value, King Solomon asks “(w)hat profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” This question expresses the anxiety over whether what we toil for might be without worth at all, and therefore pointless.

 

So far we have seen that the anxieties of loss and meaning are bound up with our rational being; they are not mere accidents, but they are also not essential. They are, for lack of a better term, un-essential or un-rational aspects of human life; connected to our rationality through rationality’s negation—and hence internally linked to rationality and its intrinsic shortcomings. With an understanding of the shared un-rational nature of these anxieties, we can now see how they relate deeply to one other: each anxiety both excludes the other and promises redemption from the other. A person agonizingly anxious of loss may envy her stoic friend who sees less value in his ends and consequently suffers less from the prospects of their loss. And vice versa, he who depressively conceives of no meaning in life may wish for his friend’s deep immersion in her values. Each sees hope in the condition of the other; the one wishes to value more, the other to value less, and we can imagine one oscillating between the two poles of anxiety in a wish to find the middle way between them. This is the doctrine of the mean in relation to the form of our practical life.

 

Accordingly, it appears, the human lot is at best to find the mean between these poles, or at least to oscillate gently between them. We may think about finding the right balance between the two anxieties as a virtue—a mean between two vices. But what assures us that we will not lose our grip of the mean and slip back to one of the extremes? Even in maintaining balance, we are vulnerable to the anxiety that nothing secures this balanced state; that it is forever subject to changes beyond our control. A famous Chasidic proverb by Rabi Nachman of Breslav goes “the whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.” If a man spends his life on a narrow bridge, leading nowhere (it is the entire world, after all), it appears that there is no better thing for him to do than to maintain balance and forever live in fear of falling down to the abyss of either of the anxieties. Is this truly the best we can hope for? Is there no way to transcend this precariousness human condition?

 

The rest of Rabi Nachman’s proverb may suggest that there is another way. Here is the full proverb:

The whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.

And the most important thing is not to be afraid at all.

The transcendence offered by Rabi Nachman is one in which there is a sharp awareness of the inescapable human condition, but at the same time, an insistence that we must not live in fear. The promise resides not in running away from the human condition but in a cleared-eyed recognition of it. But once we recognize it, how can we avoid being afraid?

 

I shall conclude with an answer suggested by Job and King Solomon. Job, right after having lost almost all his loved ones and earthly possessions, says: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Coping with loss, and the possibility of loss, comes with an awareness that all of it comes from God and is thanks to God. This awareness allows one to see a point in the loss since it is not a mere outcome of human fragility but a part of God’s intention. It is by virtue of realizing this that one can overcome, or at least live with, the anxiety of loss: the loss is one part of God’s plan and hence, though it may torment us, it is a constituent of the good. As long as we trust in God, we are not afraid. King Solomon’s lamentations end with the words “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole of man.” In other words, we can feel safe that the world and our ends are valuable if we trust in God. It is through the fear of God that we are freed of our anxiety of meaning. The ends given by God’s commandments are of value we cannot doubt as long as we have faith. In faith, the world cannot be bereft of value and meaning. Through faith, Rabi Nachman’s imperative is fulfilled. One can stand in the world, which is nothing but narrow bridge, with confidence, and without fear of being engulfed by the two essential human anxieties.

 


Amichai Amit is PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. His research concerns the foundations of ethics and normativity. He also has strong interests in the history of philosophy (ancient and German idealism) and existentialism. He previously received an MA in Philosophy from Tel-Aviv University.

The Anxiety of Loss and the Anxiety of Meaning: Part One

 

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This is a two part series. Part Two, “Rationality and the Anxiety of Meaning”, posts tomorrow.

Part One: Anxiety and Loss

It is of our very nature as rational animals to reflect on our life. We do not only pursue ends, but also ask whether our ends are good and whether our life as a whole is going well. We might say that our rational practical capacity, the capacity to question and justify our ends, allows us an ethical life. By virtue of our reason we may amend our ways and also live with the knowledge that our life and the ends we pursue are as they should be. However, along with the ethical light bestowed by reason come worries unique to rational beings like us. Being able to question our ends opens the possibility of doubt and skepticism about the worth of those ends and the worth of our life as a whole. And with our comprehension of the possibility of change comes the worry that we may lose that which is of worth. In following the light of reason we are haunted by the shadows of anxiety.

 

Human reflection on anxiety has always accompanied the rational reflection on the good life (ethics). However, it sometimes appears that unlike the rational contemplation of human life (ethics) that has given rise to systems of thought, the shadowy realm of anxiety is formless and particular; subject matter for the human imagination and artistic creation, rather than for rational systematic philosophy. But since anxiety comes with practical rationality, it is forever marked by the contour of reason. Though anxiety may lack the internal rational articulation of ethics, it bears eternal witness to the rational anatomy of ethics. In what comes next I propose that from our nature as rational animals, i.e., beings with both desires and reason, follows two essential kinds of anxieties: the anxiety of meaning and the anxiety of loss. The anxiety of meaning concerns the apprehension that our life and ends are meaningless and worthless. The anxiety of loss concerns the dread that whatever is of worth, may—and eventually will—change and degenerate.

 

But before I show in what sense these two anxieties are essential and follow from our rational nature, an important distinction is in order. Anxiety is not identical to fear and has a different relation to our rationality. In attempting to distinguish between ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’ it is often said that fear has an object (say, a menacing stray dog), and anxiety does not; fear is a response to a real threat, whereas anxiety isn’t. In other words, while fear is infused with reasons (“the stray dog is about to attack me, this is why I’m afraid!”), anxiety isn’t. This distinction provides a negative understanding of anxiety; namely, through its not being in the space of reasons, i.e. its being non-rational. However, it is less often noted that anxiety is entirely tied with reason, and while it has no object (or content) of its own, it arises from the form of our practical reason. What do I mean by the form of practical reason? I mean that which pertains to practical reason regardless of any specific ends (contents). Thus, regardless of what one’s pursuits in life are, as an agent one must have pursuits, must have ends; must have desires. Bereft of desires one has no reasons to act at all (consider clinical depression). Accordingly, having desires, we may say, is a formal characteristic of creatures like us. Another formal characteristic comes from our rationality. As noted earlier, as rational agents, we also reflect on our ends, both to see whether they are attainable (and how) and to see whether they are worthy. Accordingly, the capacity to rationally assess and evaluate one’s end and the means to one’s ends is a formal characteristic of our practical being. We see then that these two aspects of human agency, desire and reason, are formal aspects in the sense that they hold regardless of one’s actual objects of desires. Whether one desires to be a lawyer, a priest, spend time with one’s family or watch football, qua rational agent one has desires and reason – both capacities constitute the form of human agency. In light of this, we see that anxiety, unlike fear, transpires from the very form of human agency. The anxiety of loss transpires from having objects of desire (ends), the anxiety of meaning from being able to rationally consider our ends.

 

I now turn to elaborate on the two essential anxieties. Desiring, for finite creatures like us, comes with the perennial risk of loss. As conscious beings, we are conscious of this risk as internal to our human condition. We are aware of it as a formal characteristic of our life. As such, rather than being a mere unfortunate fact of human psychology, the anxiety of loss is bound with the form of human life; even the happy life. Part of human happiness consists of desires, most importantly, of care and love, for people, ideas and projects. For instance, family, friends, community and vocation, constitute such central objects of care and love, and in their absence we consider life deficient. These are some of the core objects of human desire (ends) and few would voluntarily opt for life bereft of them (though this is perhaps not at all a matter of choice). But along with having these ends comes the realization that we can lose them. Traditionally, the figure of Job poignantly symbolizes the fragility of human life—how a good life, a life rich with family, friends, and possessions, can always fall into pieces. Being finite beings we always stand in danger of losing that which is precious to us and so, a painful shadow lurks even in the happiest life. The consciousness of our fragility and constant risk of losing (or never getting) what is good in our lives is the anxiety of loss.

 


Amichai Amit is PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. His research concerns the foundations of ethics and normativity. He also has strong interests in the history of philosophy (ancient and German idealism) and existentialism. He previously received an MA in Philosophy from Tel-Aviv University.

 

Workshop on Happiness, Virtue, and the Meaning of Life at Stockholm University | May 5-6, 2017

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This two-day workshop aims to close the gap between empirical and philosophical approaches to questions of happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life, in the interest of encouraging the development of an empirically informed philosophy and a science with philosophical awareness. Organizers: Erik Angner and Mats Ingelström.

Keynotes by Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina) and Candace Vogler (University of Chicago).

Presentations by Anna Alexandrova (Cambridge University), Michael Bishop (Florida State
University), Dale Dorsey (University of Kansas), Kirsten Egerstrom (Southern Methodist University), Kaisa Kärki (University of Jyväskylä), Antti Kauppinen (University of Tampere), Jennifer Lockhart (Auburn University), Jason Raibley (California State University), Raffaele Rodogno (Aarhus University), Joshua Lewis Thomas (University of Sheffield), Willem van der Deijl (Erasmus University ) and Sam Wren-Lewis (Leeds University).

FREE ADMISSION „ Time and place: Friday and Saturday 5–6 of May, in the William-Olsson lecture hall (Geovetenskapens hus).

For more information: www.philosophy.su.se/happiness-virtue-meaning-of-life

 

 

Download the poster: Workshop-Happiness-VIrtue-Meaning-Poster.pdf

Virtue Talk podcast: “achieving the highest form of happiness” – Josef Stern

VirtueTalklogo1Click the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Josef Stern discuss Jewish medieval philosophy, his approach as a skeptical reader of Maimonides, multiple levels of meaning into the Akedah or “binding of Isaac”, and how he anticipates  working with scholars in our project across the fields of  philosophy, theology, and psychology will impact his approach to thinking about ideas of happiness, meaning, and perplexity.

Virtue Talk | Josef Stern

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Josef Stern (with Paul Wong and Jennifer A. Frey) at the December 2016 working group meeting.

Josef Stern is the William H. Colvin Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and from 2009-14 he was Inaugural Director of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies. His book The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide (Harvard UP, 20013) won the  2014 Book Prize for the best book on the history of philosophy published in 2013, awarded by the Board of Directors of the Journal of the History of Philosophy, and will be published soon in a slightly revised version in Hebrew as  Homer ve-Tzurah Ba-Moreh Nevukhim Le-RaMBaM  by Kibbutz Ha-Me’uhad Publishers, Israel. Stern is also completing another book, Quotations and Pictures, to be published in 2018 by MIT Press.

 

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What Makes a Scientist Good? A Psychological Exploration

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Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Photo by Chris Smith.

Why do people do what they do? Why is science so important to some people? What does it offer to them that other activities do not? Considering the ends of science is one starting point for considering the particularities of virtue in science. Addressing the role of virtue in science entails understanding the purposes of science. Most people would agree that its purpose is to systematically expand human knowledge and enhance human capabilities to control their world. However, perhaps more interesting, from a psychological perspective, is that individual scientists have their own reasons for engaging in science that may be more or less aligned with this general purpose. What are these reasons? What goals, virtuous or not, actually drive scientists in their work? What goals do they think scientists should pursue? 

 

The career paths of scientists can be challenging and treacherous, given the explosion of advanced degrees in science (see Emanuele Ratti’s post on this). This has led to an increasingly long pathway to a permanent position in academia. Psychologically, this situation is ripe for individuals on all sides to focus on extrinsic rewards – seeking publications, status, and financial success – rather than intrinsic ones. Moreover, stressful environments promote the stress reaction, heightening self-protective pursuits rather than pursuing goals driven by intrinsic motives (like curiosity or valuing the contribution one can make to other’s lives) and the common good.

Purpose and meaning are ideas with a long history in psychology, stemming from the work of Victor Frankl. Purpose is the pursuit of a meaningful goal intended to influence the world in a positive way (see McAdam’s work on generativity). This corresponds with both rich intrinsic motivation (a pursuit driven by one’s values and interests, rather than by external incentives) and the pursuit of the common good. Further, there is a wealth of evidence that pursuing such goals leads to high levels of performance. Thus, I invite you to consider an approach to virtue in science focused on the what, why, and how of goal pursuit through ‘purpose’.

Purpose can be broken down into several components. For example, how one engages in the pursuit of a goal is important, and the form this engagement takes matters for the evaluation of virtue (see this post on the Virtue blog). Virtue after all emerges not only from seeking the good, but from pursuing that good well, that is, through productive and moral engagement. If I pursue my research goals unethically (i.e., through dishonesty), then, while I am doing so, I am enacting a vice. If, on the other hand, I pursue my research in a way that is honest, diligent, and collegial, then I may be developing at least a budding virtue.

Personal meaning is also essential to purpose. For Frankl, meaning can be experienced through ‘(1) creating a work or doing a deed; (2) experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering’. The pursuit of scientific goals emphasizes the first two forms of meaning. Meaning is a personal response to one’s experience. This is why meaning is deeply related to ideas like calling and vocation (see Michael Steger’s post exploring this).

Finally, purpose relates to moral goals – pursuing that which is good. This is a challenging dimension of science, as knowledge unrelated to use is difficult to call moral or immoral. One can, for instance, pursue knowledge which, through misuse or abuse, can cause harm. On some level, it is easier to evaluate the ends of engineering, which are more concrete, than the ends of more basic science, like sequencing the genome of a species. Nonetheless, the pursuit of good ends is essential to virtue (see this post from Jean Porter).

Virtue enables expert purposeful engagement in science. This includes pursuing moral goals, having moral motives for those goals, and pursuing those goals through the effective and moral means. This also necessitates, given the technical nature of science, the judgment and expertise to accomplish these goals effectively. Ideally, this judgment and expertise includes both tacit knowledge of how to conduct scientific research effectively and the capacity to articulate and communicate one’s understanding to others. While I have begun to describe a potential psychology of virtue here, I intend to further explore engagement, personal meaning, and the pursuit of the common good as they relate to specific virtues in future posts.

Why is science important? It is unique for the power of knowledge it generates. However, given this power, there is also an inherent moral responsibility among scientists to direct their pursuits appropriately and to work to ensure the proper utilization of their findings for the common good. Any scientist who fails to do so cannot be called virtuous.


This post originally appeared on Origins. Natures. Futures., a blog out of the University of Notre Dame’s  Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing. Timothy Reilly is a post-doctoral fellow in Psychology at CTSHF, whose research examines interventions to enhance psychological well-being, college student development, moral identity, the role of practices in self development, and virtue development. 

Universal Oneness: the Feeling of House

Universal Oneness: the Feeling of House

The philosophy of House music and dance aims to create unifying and meaningful life experiences for its practitioners through the idea of being one with each other and the universe.

 

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Brandon Dorsey, aka Bran1 at Rooted: Hip-hop Choreographers’ Evening 2016 (Minneapolis). Photo by Corina Seuasoukseng.

To learn more about House dance culture, history, and philosophy of self-transcendence, I had the honor of interviewing the distinguished House dancer and event organizer, Brandon Dorsey, also known as Bran1. He has been part of the Chicago dance community for more than fifteen years, organized several events, traveled across the globe to perform, teach, and compete, and has won multiple prestigious competitions. Brandon is the organizer of the event series Provide The Vibe, and is also a successful businessman in the logistics industry.

 

“House” music emerged from the Chicago club scene in the early 1980s. Its origins can be traced to the Chicago nightclub The Warehouse (1977-1983), where legendary DJ Frankie Knuckles—often named the Father of House music—was experimenting by blending disco and other genres with music technologies such as drum machines and synthesizers. By taking the intensity and pulsing base rhythm from disco, and mixing it with new electronic sounds, Frankie Knuckles along with other Chicago artists created a sensation. Soon people would travel from the other side of the town, and eventually from the other side of the country just to hear “Warehouse music”. Eventually this became just House Music.

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The vinyl collection of Frankie Knuckles will go on display in new Chicago cultural center, Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo from Electronic Dance Magazine. Read more here.

 

House dancing as a self-aware culture and art form emerged in the late 80’s early 90’s after House music had gained its rapid international success. House was branching out to all corners of the world. Dancers in NYC, Chicago, and other cities began to come together to develop a specific foundation of steps to be the foundation of the dance that accompanied House music. These steps predominately came from Salsa, samba, tap dance, Breakdancing, and Chicago Footwork, but had other influences as well.

 

“It sounds like such a cliché at first, but House is a feeling.” Brandon elaborates that House dance as a community and a philosophy is centered around a specific mindset, namely that House is a feeling. Philosophers might call it a form of transcendence; House dancers call it “Blacking Out”. The phenomenon of Blacking Out has many similarities to meditation or the mind state of Zen.

 

When in this state of mind the dancer forgets about themselves, forgets about their problems, and simply becomes one with the music. It is dancing without boundaries, determined less by steps, forms, and conventions, and fully by intuitive on-the-spot interactions between dancers and their music. Brandon describes the ideal House moment as one in which everyone is in tune with each other’s movements, creating a collective freestyle partner dance. When one person moves, everyone moves with them. Such an experience can only be achieved when dancers are fully engaged in the music and with one another. The dancers must forget about their own needs and desires, and become one with the moment.

 

Brandon explains that such moments are prized by the House dance community on both a practical and philosophical level. House dancers will get together not only to achieve “the House feeling”, but also to discuss what it means to have such experiences, how to better achieve them, and what they mean for their community at large. Hence the feeling of House becomes the centerpiece around which an elaborate philosophy is constructed.

 

The principle of unity is shared and articulated by practitioners not only through philosophical conversation outside the dance floor, but also on the floor when people will yell “This is church, this is church!” The chant “This is church” and other similar phrases are meant to reinforce the understanding of the philosophy but also to show that moments of intense unification are sacred to House dancers. Brandon explains that he has no qualms in using the word sacred, since it is the closest thing he can find to explain the strong spiritual aspect of the dance.

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 Chosen Few 2016 House Music Festival. Photos by Marc Monaghan.

In fact, Brandon articulates that he and many others do not see a difference between practicing a religion and practicing House dance. Like many organized religions, House dancing or “Housing” consists of a community coming to worship, confirming a set of beliefs, practicing rituals, and tapping into the sacred and the spiritual. For Brandon and many of the practitioners in the international community, House dancing fulfills all of these functions and more.

 

House competitions exist, but they are not at the center of the culture. In fact, while in Breaking it is seen as odd not to want to compete, house dancers find it inauthentic to practice the dance in order to compete. House is a feeling first, a community second, a technique third, and a competition last. This concept is explicitly part of the virtues that house dancers are told to develop. If Breakdancing is the Art of War, House dancing is Taoism.

 

It is understood by House dancers that they must develop the virtues of intuitiveness, sensitivity, universal love, and respect for the sacred. In turn, the community and the “feeling of House” will provide a meaningful life to the dancers, letting them know that they are part of something much bigger, part of everyone and everything. The philosophy of House speaks of a universal love for people, beings and things. Through the feeling of House, practitioners become unified with each other, their community, society, and the universe at large. The feeling of House is an entry way into a form of epistemology that will ultimate reveal that everyone and everything is connected. So by loving others we love ourselves, and by loving ourselves we love others.

 

Brandon explains that although House started as a predominately Black and Latino form of music, House dance culture’s focus on community makes it a virtue to eliminate the isolated particularity of race, class, gender, and sexuality. In fact, because of the strong emphasis on unity, house dance celebrates those who can obtain the universal feeling of House, where all other aspects of a person’s background recede. Taking part in the dance and helping achieve the feeling of House in the moment is all that matters. Transcending the self in order to become part of something bigger and more important is at the core of House dance philosophy and is part of what makes House dance a meaningful experience.

 


Christian Kronsted is a graduate student assistant with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Virtue Talk Podcast: Michael Gorman on Listening to Others and Finding Meaning

virtuetalklogorsClick the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Michael Gorman discuss his research in human fulfillment, and how his thinking about scholarship and research has been impacted in surprising ways by our collaborative project.

Michael Gorman | Virtue Talk

Micahel Gorman is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. Read more about him and other other scholars here.

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Michael Gorman discussing meaning as PI Jennifer A. Frey listens, at our June 2016 working group meeting.

 

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