…on unamuno’s tragic sense of life

library unamunoNotes on Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life.

Unamuno’s 1912 book Tragic Sense of Life is an early expression of Spanish & European existentialism. Why do we propose Unamuno is an existentialist?—because he was concerned with existence, our corporeal existence. To conclude that a thinker is existentialist, we make the claim that their philosophy bases itself in the concerns of existence. If we are to come to an understanding of our lives as an existentialist, we must come to that understanding within the context of our own living & breathing existence.

In Unamuno’s 2nd chapter, he clearly defines what he means by the term a ‘tragic sense of life,’ “For living is one thing and knowing is another; and, as we shall see, perhaps there is such an opposition between the two that we may say that everything vital is anti-rational, not merely irrational, and that everything rational is anti-vital.”[1] This diagram separates Unamuno’s opposition with notes on what this must imply [my additions]:

unamuno tragic sense of life opposition

Now let’s unfold this seemingly simple proposition. On one hand we have that which is vital & anti-rational, life-force (indeed the life force named by Spinoza, a.k.a. conatus), existence, & the like. On the other hand, we have that which is rational which is not corporeal, it is objective, universal & timeless. Given these two polarities, we must not forget that they are opposed, they are in contradiction. If these two elements are in opposition, this opposition is Unamuno’s ‘tragic sense of life.’

The ever-present well-worn philosophical opposition between the mind & the body is where we should center our attention. This is Descartes’ dualism. The mind is separate from the body. As Unamuno demonstrates, Descartes “cogito ergo sum” is not so much a direction toward the ego, rather “I am thinking” first & foremost. I am thinking beyond the body when I am engaged in rational thought. Descartes’ certainty rests in rational thought, not in the body (since for Descartes, the two were distinctly separate, notwithstanding the complexity of trying to justify how the two intermix, that’s somewhere in another paper).

For Unamuno, we reason through an understanding of our existence something like this:

unamuno death Rational thought sets up a way of thinking about death whereby we find ourselves in a “tragic” bind between “irredeemable despair” or the redemption of dying otherwise. Perhaps this is the promise of an eternal afterlife? We cannot know either way & hence our mortal despair. Rational thought pulls us away from the body by way of such philosophical thinking, objective, mathematical & scientific ways of thinking.

Another way of thinking about this would be to posit that the thinking person wishes to sees her mind as beyond the body & at the time of death if that mind moves on through the soul into eternity then she should aspire to this aim throughout her life until her death. This is found in religious practice & also by way of philosophical thinking. Why wouldn’t we aspire for eternity? Nevertheless, our fallible bodies are flesh & blood & not eternal. Reason posits eternity & we want eternity with our corporeal bodies & cannot have it. This is Unamuno’s ‘tragic sense of life,’ a problem of our embodied existence with this strange admixture of conatus + the body vs. reason + eternity, without resolution, a contradiction, a problem of our existential finitude.

–aurelio madrid

[1] Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life, translated by J.E. Crawford Flitch (Sophia Omni, 2014), 47.

…on trigg’s absence of reason

branden davis

In Dylan Trigg’s 2006 book The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason, we are shown an idea that rationality has a claim to permanency & order. Reason in the shadow of decay is transient. Rationality doesn’t always neatly allow for the un-pure ruin, entropy & eventual decline. That reason ‘should’ flourish is what the ruin contradicts, a ruin stands as a testament for the irrational & the soon to be post-rational. “Unable to rationalize decline, the aim of reason has been to shadow the mutable by affirming the permanent, the illusion is not dead.”[54] The assumed supremacy of reason is not easily dislodged with the corrupting power of architectural failure. “At the end of its present narrative, history’s morbid nostalgia toward reason has prevented us from ascribing virtue to decline & vice to formal abstraction.”[55] The ruin is in silent certification of the fallibility & insufficiency of reason to hold itself as sovereign & as the only answer. Can we cling to reason in the face of destruction, if destruction itself is irrational?

Trigg seeks to challenge the presupposition of reason’s progress as ‘homogenizing.’ Reason’s homogenizing demands adherence to a predetermined set of rules & guidelines. If reason is normalizing it is also rule & lawmaking set of stricture by which it imposes onto our experience of ruins, buildings, & daily-living. This critique is overlaid with a sense of nostalgia. In other words, a common way to understand things is to suggest that way things were in the past is a good indication for how they should be in the present & future. This type of problem is related to the ‘is/ought’ problem. With the ‘is/ought’ problem the confusion is between how something is described and the way things should be. Because something is a certain way today, need not be prescription for how it ought to be in the future. Nostalgia becomes the best example of this rationalism. When we are nostalgic, we are tacitly suggesting that the past was somehow better than things are now. Reason makes such demands onto things, ruins, & people. According to this logic, things should be a certain way because they worked better in the past.

A so-called homecoming that is linked to nostalgia is the yearning for a past that was better than now. The impossibility of rectifying a glorified past becomes a glaring revenant of the ruin, because the ruin’s past could also be idealized to a revivified fault of never matching the present. With nostalgia, the present is deficiently reflected in the ruin—reasonably & temporally.

Reason has the infiltrated our thinking as an emblem of progress. Reason’s progress often manifests as authoritarianism, a unified, unbiased truth that regulates & enforces by virtue of its logic. Whatever falls outside of this is deemed unreasonable & irrational. A ruined building is an instance of such a falling away of reason’s imposing sovereignty.

–aurelio madrid

…on hume’s problem with causation

How is Hume’s Skepticism Related to Reason & Causality?

hume billiard example II

Rationalism: Recall that an inductive argument is one where if the premises are true the conclusion probably will be true. With an inductive argument, we reason from specific examples to general claims about all things. Inductive reasoning has built into it the idea of causation: one effect causes another event. Within this very simple reasonable connection we typically make a demonstrative connection.

If I hit the cue ball   ⃝ to strike the ⑦ ball into the corner pocket that typically is demonstrative that the cue ball   ⃝  hitting the ⑦ ball has a ‘necessary’ connection (above & beyond whether or not the ⑦ ball makes it into the corner pocket). In other words, we might think inductively that the event of striking the   ⃝  cue ball with a cue stick will have a necessary connection between the effect of hitting the cue ball   ⃝  to cause the striking of the ⑦  ball.

As rationalists we think that the two events are necessarily connected. This connection is supplied by reason & it is part of the way we do science. If one effect is necessarily connected to its cause then we can make a basic inference that events in the past will be a good indication of future events. Okay, there’s a quick gloss on a typical way we understand causation (as a rationalist).

hume billiard example

David Hume: With consideration for Hume’s (1711-1776) Scottish Enlightenment philosophy, we must acknowledge his epistemological affinities as unmistakably empiricist. That is to say, everything we have knowledge of we have by way of the senses. This philosophical position usually stands in conflict with rationalism (the way we know of the world is primarily rational—based on a priori reason, not by necessarily sense experience).

Enter Hume’s problem of causation. Given that philosophically Hume was an empiricist he needed to explain the way we have knowledge of the world strictly by way of the five senses. Instead of inferring a way that we acquire knowledge rationally (in an a priori way). With Hume we have a way to account for all knowledge as deriving from impressions, these are sensorial and lead to our more abstract ideas of the impressions. What is of significance here is that as a good empiricist, Hume needs to account for the way we know things by way of experience and only by way of experience. Therefore the connection between our sensorial impressions and the ideas is based solely on experience. We must have a sensorial impression of one event in order to see (hear, touch, taste, or smell) that it causes another event.

Hume’s problem with causation is such that, in a rationalistic way we typically supply the necessary connection between cause & effect without the necessary connection ever being present in the experience. Sometimes students confuse what Hume is having a problem with & often misunderstand that Hume is calling physics into question. He is not suggesting that there is an absence of force between the billiard balls striking one another, or that the force is something we make-up or illusory. He is pointing out that the force is not necessary. Because this force is not necessary for Hume, this means that the typical way in which we supply this necessity is by way of habit and not reason.

In Hume’s empirical context, when we observe two billiard balls striking one another we cannot find something, no matter how hard we look (hear, smell, touch, or taste) that looks like necessity within the action of one event causing the other. That is to say, Hume was skeptical of the necessary connection we typically make in the way we understand causation. He was skeptical of the reasoning we typically use to understand causality.

We make this type of inductive inference on a daily basis: If I hit the cue ball   ⃝ to strike the ⑦ ball into the corner pocket, I habitually infer that the cue ball   ⃝  hitting the ⑦ ball has a ‘necessary’ connection. This necessary connection is typically supplied by reason.

To repeat, Hume is an empiricist so he has to account for the way we know the world strictly by experience. In this way, reason for Hume is called into question because causation does not have a necessary connection found with experience alone and for Hume is demoted to habit. We are in the habit of supplying the necessary connection from one event to the other. Yet another way of saying this would be to say that when we make an inductive inference, from the specific case of something causing another event to happen, we tend to habitually infer that one event will probably be effected by the same cause time & time again. Hume’s critique is that we cannot rely on this probability as necessary. Part of the way out of Hume’s problem is to have a larger sample by which to base the probability of something happening. If we base our conclusions on a wider sample then our conclusions will likely be stronger.

–aurelio madrid