January 4, 2016: Hedonistic hairsplitting and scientific certainty

Despite all my many efforts to combat daftness, it still visits me. And in the least likely of places, such as this blog where I ponder at length something I’ve read. One presumes that both reading and pondering would ward off daftness. But in real life, and as one learns in engineering, no system is perfect.

Days after posting my last entry on this blog I attempted to fix daft notions it contained, but it’s still a mess. That mess seems to come down to some quite subtle hairsplitting over terms and assumptions. As I’ve found, even defining gets dicey. It’s no wonder political philosophy and politics in general generates so much heat in this country. As the cartoon character, Elmer Fudd, once told Bugs Bunny, “It ain’t science!”

Last time I made reference to Gogdignon and Thiriet’s (G&T’s) assessment of the modern individual's willful obsession with work, and our destiny as hedonists, which didn’t happen. I then submitted their hypothesis applied only to white color professionals, not labor and trades, i.e. hedonism did matter to labor and trades because, “Their action tends not to be rewarding beyond remuneration.”

Well…really? While I maintain that most vocations are no longer in and of themselves inspiring (more on that below), does the domination of our workplace argue for a hedonistic life for anybody? If G&T are right, that we in the Western world now work ourselves to the grave by choice, where’s the hedonism in that? So, in this post, I reject the remark I made last time, and suggest that hedonism is not the goal for almost anyone, professional or labor.

But wait! During arguments with myself about this topic, I was confronted with another fine French philosopher from the same text in which I discovered G&T - Gilles Lipovetsky. [2] Lipovetsky convincingly says the opposite: hedonism has been not only a dominant player in modernity, but surreptitious. For him, a cultural transformation can be pinned down to France, May, 1968 (while similar events were afoot in the US). Lipovetsky submits that student movements of ’68 were unprecedented from previous revolts in their combination of unified action, like all such revolts that deny supremacy of the individual for a cause, but for purely individualistic reasons, like no such revolt. In ’68 there was no plan, no future, only challenge to every form of order, organization, and hierarchy as oppressive of immediate gratification. Students of that period, according to Lipovetsky, denounced capitalistic hedonism through a practice of hedonism in which complete permissiveness was demanded without restraints, reinforced by Freud’s (fanciful) notions of repressed desires.

Lipovetsky writes, “In no way did May announce the restructuring of society; indeed, it signaled the very opposite. It was the psychodramatic and parodic end to the [true] revolutionary age [of Enlightenment]. It augured the victory of individualism, and the irreversible privatization of the social sphere. May ’68 was less an antitechnocratic movement struggling for collective self-determination than a wild moment in our relentless descent into the world of modern individualism and personal autonomy.”

Recall that according to Louis Dumont, this individualist movement has a long evolution; from Greek Cynics to Roman Stoics, absorbed by Christians, changed by the Enlightenment, passed forward and amplified to deafening volumes in the 1960s. [3] This evolution exchanged virtue for liberty, duty for rights, responsibility for choice, belonging for autonomy, meaning for purpose. For Lipovetsky, the hedonistic spasm of the ’60s accelerated hedonistic tendencies common to all democracies, and steepened the tumble of what was already in decline. Social bonds weakened with withdrawal into private life, and people further turned in on themselves becoming indifferent to public life with little interest in ties to the collectivity.

While further hairsplitting might be enjoyed between Lipovetsky’s hedonism as cause vs. G&T’s hedonism as outcome, does hedonism really play a role in either context?

America is today a materialistic society, and I doubt I’ll confess to daftness on that. However, materialism - in its social sense as material possessions superior to spiritual values - is not quite hedonism. Materialism seems to have four causes: survival, sexual selection through display, rank in the primate hierarchy, and hedonism. While materialism is not necessarily hedonistic, hedonism is most definitely materialistic. Though Lipovetsky’s impressions of ’68 are inviting - the faddish character of its motivations and its permanent outcomes - hedonism as the outcome of our fall from belonging or its cause, seems less so. To G&T’s point, hedonism should have been the result of radical individualism, but it wasn’t. Instead, our materialism seems to me less about self-indulgent devotions to pleasure, than backfill. As Morgan Whitaker said, “Once on the material track, people strive for more to fill in for less.” [4]

But less what exactly?

Meaning.

I stated in an earlier blog my hypothetical distinction between meaning and purpose. That meaning is delivered to us from external sources – the loving pet, adoring child, trustworthy spouse, belief in God. While purpose, on the other hand, is up to us, internally determined. We’ve always got something to do. Echoing G&T (and Tocqueville [5]) so long as we stay busy, the realization that we have limited or no meaning whatsoever can be hidden. Hence, the effect of lost community, tradition, and religion, exchanged for the satisfaction of self-interest which our economic machine is built for. Of course there are still believers, and people still have families, both of which provide meaning. Both also took serious injury in the 20th century, and according to surveys referenced earlier, that trend is accelerating. The individualist movement powers forward.

Now we’ve arrived at “(more on that below),” and how I came to wrap this business about work, hedonism, and meaning together: “Work hard, play hard” is a mantra in America. From my own youthful experience in labor, the last half of that mantra was an escape. It was a kind of rebellion against making myself return daily to work I loathed, under the whip of my own needs and desires for income. At that age I could not yet separate need from desire. At one factory I worked in (when America had factories), each night on second shift from 4 p.m. to midnight I was confined to a one square meter space, performing the same repetitive action. Over and over, fast as I could perform it, as I dreamed about mealtime, and hoped my daydream didn’t cost me my fingers or a hand. For a 19 year old boy, I was chained to a dungeon. When the midnight whistle blew, I struggled to contain my euphoria until the freeway entrance a half mile away. There, my shouts through an opened car window echoed off the outer planets as I drove up the ramp. I did this to psychologically cut that chain with the power of audio. I bought a motorcycle to ride on trails as hard as I could ride it. I drove my car as fast as I could drive it. I skied as long as I could stand it. I fought factory confinement with outside activity.

My perception of this vocation is telling in a manner beyond personal idiosyncrasies. During the Great Depression, such employment would have been seen as a gift from God. During World War Two, it was seen as a duty to America engaged in the hoped for salvation of civilization. After the war, factory labor was seen as part and parcel of the good life, a mark of the responsible citizen on their way from deprivation to comfort. Things changed. We changed, and the system we made succeeded. My example as a youth, ignorant of the part I represented in that arc of transforming perceptions was merely one instance of that alteration. My actions were about an ordering of life I didn’t want to conform to.

But this sounds like an argument for Lipovetsky, that my actions were little different from students in ’68. I say, no. My actions were not about pleasure seeking, but the fact I saw no meaning to my labor. My purpose at the factory was clear – the dollar. Meaning experienced by these circumstances in previous generations was gone by the time I arrived because the sanctification of individualism moved past any remaining communal roles and their connections. My world was all about me, not some larger picture of the common good so cherished by the ancients, or more recently, by my parents. Be it labor or professional, how many of us today toil in service to a higher cause, or simply to pay the bills? I wanted the meaning my parents had, but didn’t know it. My rebellion wasn’t going to provide that, it could only be a tantrum for reasons unknown at the time.

What I sought was not pleasure, so it wasn’t hedonism, it was relief from whatever I couldn’t define. Those growing numbers of us today without tradition, religion, and true community, have cast off those anchors as an outcome of the individualist movement. We don’t seek a future of material pleasure in hedonism, but try in the only way we know (individual will) to cover for the loss of a past we don’t even know.

But if we don’t even know it, how can we seek to fill in for whatever it was with something else? Because we feel it. Humans are social creatures, starting with birth to mother that determines our meaning from the outside. She is the first valuation of ourselves. We don’t “know” that as infants either, but we feel it. Anyone who’s been around infants can see the importance of that connection, and we know what psychological mutations occur when this is denied. We moderns live in similar denial, but as adults, willfully detached, then wonder why our societies experience such dis-ease. This is why our so called self-realization is impossible on our own, because ironically it can only be found through proper relations with other humans in those true face-to-face communities that no longer exist.

Sadly, political philosophy, which I find so intriguing, is not physics. The precision with which one argues these topics is not a precision engineers would find satisfactory in making real things real. Devices built with the kind of certainty prevalent in political philosophy might work with better than chance randomness, but in engineering, that’s not saying much.

In science and engineering, nature is the unbiased judge. We test our understanding against it and find we are right, close to right, or wrong. Nature has no concern for us, it is what it is. We either understand it, or we don’t. In the human realm, no longer is there a certain test.

Perhaps this is one reason we so often argue past each other now. Who knows what’s true? For we modern products of that Enlightenment reason I so cherish, neither the Greek Cosmos, nor Christian order in God’s divine plan can result in certainty, and thus we have no reference. These views were once considered objective facts, external to us. Now they’re merely subjective opinions.

In America, our Founders intentionally demoted religion from fact to opinion in order to defang passions. Better peace with ambiguity, than war with certainty. Hence, government (not the people) was to be neutral on matters of morality, while the Founders hoped religion and morality would hold their own. That’s not what happened. Today, truth, values, evil, the good, and our individualistic lifestyles are all relative, chosen by the individual. What we have in common now is not a sacred human essence that the ancients held so dear (at least among non-slaves). As Philippe Bénéton writes, “What we have in common is the right to have nothing in common.” [6] We’re free. But deep down is there a growing sense that we are rudderless, and don’t know why? These authors make it appear that way, and my experience seems to agree, but “this ain’t science.”

Oh well. It’s early morning. The stores are open. I’ll feel better – for a while - if I go buy something.

Until the first Monday in March, the 7th, 2016.


[1] Anne Gogignon & Jean-Louis Thiriet, The Rebirth of Voluntary Servitude, in New French Thought: Political Philosophy, Princeton, 1994
[2] Gilles Lipovetsky, May ’68, of the Rise of Transpolitical Individualism, in New French Thought: Political Philosophy, Princeton, 1994
[3] Louis Dumont, Essays on Individualism, University Of Chicago Press, Reprint 1992
[4] Brett Williams, The Father, Combustible Books, 2014
[5] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Penguin Classics, 2003
[6] Philippe Bénéton, Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement, ISI, 2004
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Published on January 04, 2016 07:41
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