268 Heidegger, Foucault, Wittgenstein, and how to rebel
Here I resume a brief series on rebellion
In his ‘Being and time’, Heidegger proposed the view, taken also throughout this blog, that the self is not a bystander with pre-formed ideas, looking out on the world, but is ‘thrown into the world’, being constituted by it. As a result, one is ‘fallen’ (‘Verfallen’, in German), caught, in the grips of ‘das Man’, the collective, or the ‘One’ in the sense of ‘that is how ONE behaves’. The problem then is how to get free from that grip, to achieve authenticity.
This is very close, I propose, to Foucault’s idea that we are caught in ‘regimes of truth’. One could, I think, capture ‘das Man’ as well as the ‘regime of truth’ in the notion of an ‘institutional system’, with its rules, roles, positions and doctrine. How, then to escape from it?
Both Heidegger and Foucault recognized that we need an institutional system as an enabling system, from which the self forms itself. And we need it to take things for granted, in order to function, not to have to wrangle agreement at every step (e.g. in a language community, division of labour, trade, traffic, in a political system, … ). System power is not only negative, constraining choice, but also positive, in providing options for choice. The issue, according to Foucault, is to accept, to value and to exert, positive power, while maintaining the ability of resisting or counteracting the negative power of suppression.
But how to both use the system to function and deviate from it to develop authenticity? Foucault said that we should ‘shape our life as a work of art’. Yes, but how is that done?
One can find or form a smaller community of more like-minded people, but that yields its own constraints and in any case one is still part of a larger system.
Heidegger said that awareness of the horizon of death, in ‘being unto death’ impels us to commit to a choice to form an individual self, as part of a whole of life, in ‘disclosing oneself’ (‘Entschlossenheid’). The horizon compels us to choose or else waste the potential of life. Fine, but the question still is: how to both employ and escape the system?
Here, I employ Wittgenstein’s notion of a ‘language game’. As I did in a discussion of the handling of the Greek financial crisis, in item 206 of this blog. If an institutional system entails one or more language games, what room is there within these rules or for changing the rules?
Earlier, in item 170, I discussed the room left in discourse from the fact that meanings of words are not delimited strictly. Public meanings allow for private connotations. Meanings are open, subject to shift, in individual language use, as is most pronounced in poetry.
Rules of the game leave room for individual technique and style. Take Muhammad Ali: he obeyed the rules of boxing but developed his own style to ‘float like a butterfly and sting like bee’. Some authenticity is possible within the rules.
Still, from inside the game it is difficult to change the rules, and as an outsider one would be simply ignored, not taken seriously. However, by being an expert, superb player, one can use the reputation to make controversial, deviant statements. Muhammad Ali did that, to criticise racism and discrimination.
Another example, in economics, is Kenneth Arrow. As a reputed scholar he earned attention for a fundamental insight that challenged economic doctrine.[i]
However, even then it is difficult to rebel and change the rules radically from inside. Arrow showed that an important part of economics as we knew it does not work, but not how a new economics would work.
Apart from pressure from others in the system to conform, it is difficult, intellectually and morally, for oneself to retain and enact independence of thought, to change the system. In fighting the system one may destroy one’s reputation built on it.
To radically change the rules, in creative destruction, one has to accept ostracism, being an outcast. One has to struggle in the desert to get one’s deserts. To have novelty adopted one needs to show that ‘it works’, to those, often a novel generation, that are open to it. Often recognition does not arrive in ‘being unto death’ but after it. The commitment to leave something behind, beyond death, according to the best of one’s talents, should carry its own reward.
An alternative, which I reject but is increasingly adopted even by scholars, is to leave the arena of rational debate, fire up the rhetoric and mobilize the populace, appealing to emotions and ‘gut feeling’ to win the day.
[i] In his theorem of the ‘impossibility of majority voting’: the impossibility to aggregate individual preferences into a well-behaved collective preference ordering.