On Writing Without Lies, Machinations And Bullshit
The Unhappy Man: Guiding Axiom #4
Restrain the urge to overcome unhappiness with ideological prescription
The following is the fourth guiding axiom for this newsletter, The Unhappy Man. It’s one of many that I hope to share in the upcoming weeks.
It’s infinitely easier to know of a lie than what is true. Existentially, a lie is not a mere untruth but an utterance of nonbeing. And to be aware of nonbeing is more than the conceptual, theoretical understanding of a philosophical concept; once it’s felt spiritually, the anxiety it imbues can leave one perturbed and unhinged. Such is why Paul Tillich states, “anxiety is the existential awareness of nonbeing” (The Courage to Be, P.35). The “anxiety” Tillich writes of is not the medicalised kind a psychiatrist would prescribe a drug to or a New Age self-help guru would try to solve with a mindfulness course. It’s inescapably a part of our being:
”‘Existential’ in this sentence means that it is not the abstract knowledge of nonbeing which produces anxiety but the awareness that nonbeing is a part of one’s own being. [...] Anxiety is finitude, experienced as one’s own finitude. This is the natural anxiety of man as man, and in some way of all living beings. It is the anxiety of nonbeing, the awareness of one’s finitude as finitude.” (The Courage to Be, P.36)
Despite being encompassing nonbeing and the impossibility of jettisoning our existential anxiety, lying exacerbates the looming threat of nonbeing and makes one’s constitutive ontic anxiety pathological. You’re aware of death’s actuality; that at one arbitrary point in life, everything culminates in a nothingness—despite you not knowing what this nothing truly entails, you have intimations of its imminence. And yet you can cope with death. But if you lie and deceive in your finite existence, not only does death verge upon you insufferably, but your life becomes so agonisingly hellish that you’d wish you were dead already. This means we identify a lie or truth best not by the cognisance of correspondence or objective facts the way a theoretician or scientist would do with a given problem but primarily by being attentive to one’s inner thoughts, emotions and psychic states when uttering or writing something. In that vein, metaphysically speaking, if the universe is made up of facts, the trueness or falseness of a fact necessitates a human being—or a Dasien, to use Heideggerian terminology—to come to being.
Case in point: Martin Luther, the “Father of the Protestant Reformation”, was a little-known priest in 1517. This was until he famously hammered his 95 theses onto the doors of All Saints Church in the border town of Wittenberg, Saxony (modern-day Germany), subsequently stirring up a storm across the whole of Europe and eventually every corner of the world. His list began the ongoing dissension between the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church and its opponents, colloquially known as the Protestants. And secularly precipitated leftism, anti-statism and modernity as a whole. One could argue that many momentous historical revolutions and social movements, from the French Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement, could be pointed to this ostensibly simple act by Luther, which he intended only to start an academic debate. At the time, the absolute theocratic authority of the Church led to Luther’s ex-communication by Pope Leo X, and he was called to the Diet of Worms (a formal deliberative assembly) and demanded to recant his heretical statements or would risk being burned at the stake. In his intransigency, notwithstanding the risk of dying a brutal death, he famously responded, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”
Since we live in secular times and are detached from a pre-Reformed society, we cannot understand the significance of Luther’s actions; no reading of history will help us realise the radical change he set forth in humanity. However, we all have our own distinctive moments of “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Luther believed to have found metaphysical truths about being. But all he had to stand by was his conscience, not an objective theory of any kind. His only way to discern truth from untruth was solely himself. If he recanted his statements, he would be telling the greatest of lies by defying his conscience; this he couldn’t live with; which is why he can do no other. You and I have very little in common with Luther except for this phenomenon of being creatures with an inescapable idiosyncratic conscience. Leaving aside abstruse metaphysics and ontology, in our daily life, in certain immediate particularities, we find truths above truth about ourselves and conceivably the larger structural whole of reality itself. So we ought to pay attention to our lives with the utmost rigour.
A lie is more than asserting an unfactual statement. Because notwithstanding our machinations to obfuscate and masquerade lies as truth, even if we convince everyone to accept a lie as being true, when one lies, one knows. And to make matters worse, we’re also self-deceiving; we must stop fooling ourselves into thinking that our emphatical will is the will to an unprejudiced truth, far from it. Kierkegaard, in his oblique, characteristic manner, was the philosopher who expounded best on finite man’s susceptibility to self-deception; for instance, he was highly sceptical of Aristotelian virtue ethics and moral philosophy. A Kierkegaardian would find viewing man as solely a rational creature of moral reasoning to be “unduly naive about the human capacity for radical evil.” Despite, at times, its spuriousness and unreliability, the findings of psychoanalysis tell us that we cannot acontextually and abstractly follow an objective morality; even when we think we are doing so, it could be self-deception. Comprehending this datum doesn’t necessarily require reading the labyrinth of existentialism and moral philosophy (although we all ought to). Rather, being attentive to ourselves will suffice: recall the last time you unequivocally knew you were doing something wrong, not “knew” in the sense of knowing some historical fact or political theory that you could regurgitate to sound smart, but you felt a pang of profound guilt and visceral disgust towards yourself for a certain act. Amidst the moment, you hated who you were and couldn’t relieve your conscience of this psycho-spiritual distress. At such times, most of us would justify our subjective shortcomings that are supposed to be on par with our personal telos: we’d conjure up any reason to tell ourselves we are not at fault, i.e. our intent was good or there was no real harm done, etc. And who could blame us?! Life is hard, and occasionally—or perhaps, always?—out of pure pragmatism, similar to Cypher in the Matrix, we choose to live in convenient lies as “ignorance is bliss” for most of us.
In many ways, Nietzsche completed Kierkegaard’s Existentialism by hammering home the point that even our conscious decisions and social structures we’ve put in, e.g. the revered scientific institutions, aren’t oriented toward the “Truth”:
“[...] even scientific enquiry itself, our science—indeed, what does all scientific enquiry in general mean considered as a symptom of life? What is the point of all that science and, even more serious, where did it come from? What about that? Is scientific scholarship perhaps only a fear and an excuse in the face of pessimism, a delicate self−defence against—the Truth? And speaking morally, something like cowardice and falsehood? Speaking unmorally, a clever trick? Oh, Socrates, Socrates, was that perhaps your secret? Oh you secretive ironist, was that perhaps your—irony?”
So, what does it mean to be an authentic and truthful writer in this utter confusion of existence? It’s someone who doesn’t write Bullshit. Unlike a liar who might at least have the pretence of being concerned for the truth, Harry G. Frankfurt expounds that bullshit is speech or writing by a bullshit artist without any regard for truth at all. Instead, he’s predominantly aiming to be solely persuasive and change a listener or reader without convincing someone that something is true. It’s even done unconsciously, as Frankfurt elucidates in his paper, “Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.” Ergo, we ought to never confuse our ostensible authenticity in speaking or writing as being truthful; sincerity itself could be a tool used for deception. One can never truly know if one is being truthful. Much like love, truth is an article of faith; one falls into it and thereafter decides to pursue it. Existentially speaking (which is the only way one ought to speak about such matters), this is why truth is an orientation, the intent of an individual and a state of being one chooses to embody rather than a destination, set of facts or propositions. In that sense, one could make an unfactual statement due to their ignorance but still not be a liar (or bullshitter) as he’s still aiming at being a seeker of truth, notwithstanding his proclivity to be fallible due to the sheer fact of being human. Of course, an outside observer cannot empirically verify this; it's entirely left to one's conscience. So perhaps one should be petrified of lying than striving to be an arbiter of truth. Solzhenitsyn was right when he wrote, “The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie.”
Subjectivity Is Truth
And this leads to one of the most contentious statements of this essay: while I’ll strive for objectivity, I need to realise that for the type of being we are, that is, human and not God, subjectivity is truth. In his trenchant critique of German idealism and ardent emphasis on existence—to be with an inwardness—over abstract theorising, yet again it was Kierkegaard who expounds (and even introduced to the Western mind?) the notion of the truth that matters above all other truths is the subjective one. Sartre, of course, appropriated this project for our secular world with his atheistic existentialism of radical freedom. I’m more a Kierkegaardian than a Sartrean as I’m a religious Nietzschean: that is to say, God does not exist objectively but purely subjectively, and what matters is not the afterlife but the present one. Therefore, I’ll write through the lens of subjective truth and be primarily concerned with subjectivity.
Kierkegaard writes in Concluding Unscientific Postscript:
“Christianity protests against every form of objectivity; it desires that the subject should be infinitely concerned about himself. It is with subjectivity that Christianity is concerned, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all. Objectively, Christianity has absolutely no existence. If the truth happens to be only in a single subject it exists in him alone; and there is greater Christian joy in heaven over this one individual than over universal history or the system.”
For him, God is a subject and therefore requires a subject-to-subject relation. This is why all religious scriptures disclose truths (not systems) to us, subjects. Similarly, this idea could be secularly reappropriated for our ordinary life, which entails being subjective and dealing with other subjects. And unsurprisingly, when people are treated any differently, it infuriates them. For instance, a feminist is right to say the objectification of women is wrong, but ironically this so-called objectification is a subjective passion of, let’s say, male-chauvinism. So nonetheless, it’s a subject-to-subject relation. We cannot escape subjectivity. Perhaps if I wrote purely about the objective natural sciences, this statement might not wholly apply; that too is questionable since it’s us who do the science. In any case, since The Unhappy Man is about the individual, there’s no decoupling or universalising the human experience from it. And subjectivity is what it ultimately means to be a human being, bar none. Such is why Sartre righty argued against Freud’s empirical psychoanalysis that attempts to schematise the human mind via a collection of observations. For Sartre, the psyche is irreducible. Ergo, I am deeply sceptical of psychometrics that attempts to prescribe identities to individuals through its lust for categorising, e.g. gender differences.
A cognitive scientist could study the qualia—qualities of the world as perceived and experienced by us—of a human subject experiencing the colour red, a footy game or Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23 and analyse the subject’s brain waves, heart rate, facial expressions, etc. and convince himself he has an empirical, objective even ontological understanding of a person. But it’ll be a great act of self-deception and scientific malady to presume he precisely knows what an individual, or the subject he’s studying in particular, is experiencing in a way that his findings could replace the actual human being. A psychometrician could categorise human beings into a taxonomy of personality traits, such as the Big Fivead infinitum but never settle on what the actual existence of an individual entails, which is why those traits are an ever-growing enumeration. And, of course, no Shakespearean sonnet, no matter how breathtakingly poetic, will truly capture what it means for you and me to fall in love. In essence, every human being is the eternal distinction in reality because the individual, who has become, is to be and is becoming will have a life no one or thing ever will. In that sense, the only verity we can be sure of is that we’re all eternally lonely in this world.
The sine qua non for writing on human experience is the epistemic humility to know that I will invariably fail at tapping into a person’s subjective truth and will only be able to delineate my subjectivity, at least that which is effable. Therefore, I write at the risk of being utterly nonsensical. And to be an authentic writer is to accept that writing will never fully encompass existence, specifically that of a sole reader. In that vein, to write well is to know the limits of writing.
I got these sentiments from Gordon Marino’s essay Stop Kidding Yourself: Kierkegaard on Self-Deception. He further comments on psychoanalysis and the 20th-century existentialists apropos self-deception: “[..] there are philosophers who, taking note of the intractable problems that Sartre raised with the Freudian account of repression, reason that no coherent account of self-deception can be given. Thus, they deceive themselves into imagining that they cannot deceive themselves. Kierkegaard assures us that whether we have a theoretical model for it or not, self-deception is a reality, and a frightful snare – frightful for its destructive power, and for the fact that it is undetectable.”
I recommend starting with Michael Pierce’s astute video series, A Critique of the “Big Five”, for delving into the matter.
I owe this insight to my friend Lova Jansson who made the point during a private conversation.