Philosophy Weekend: The Key

I was contemplating the mysteries of life while lying in a hammock in the relaxing Indiana backyard of my wife Caryn’s family home when an answer I’d been seeking suddenly came to me.

As you know if you’ve been reading these Philosophy Weekend posts, I’ve been trying to put together a couple of puzzle pieces. First, a question I’ve asked repeatedly: what is the relationship of desire to our sense of self? Second, the most central question we’ve been debating since the inception of this blog series: to what extent does a group self, or a shared self, or a collective self, exist in everyday human life, and what does it mean to speak of a group self or collective self?

What suddenly occurred to me, as I lay on this hammock during the cooling early twilight hours of a stunningly hot summer day that kept us all indoors until the sun went down, is that these two separate puzzle pieces fit together. In fact, they fit together so well that I must have subconsciously understood the connection all along, even though I didn’t realize it consciously.

What I now see is a formula (or, if you prefer, an argument) that answers my second question by answering the first. Here, in the simplest words I can manage, is the formula. Please note that I do not claim to have an absolute proof for either of the two premises numbered 1. and 2. below. It is up to each reader to weigh whether or not each premise is possible, plausible and compelling. I do believe that the two premises together form a ladder to a surprising conclusion (3.). So, here goes:

1. Desire is essential to our sense of self. Rene Descartes told us “I think, therefore I am”, and this basic truth remains unquestionable. But it isn’t specific enough, and later philosophers have refined Descartes’s perception. When we are thinking, these philosophers tell us, we are thinking with our wills. Philosophers, writers and psychologists from Pascal to Kant to Schopenhauer to Dostoevsky to Nietzsche to James to Freud have all emphasized the willfulness of basic consciousness. We think with our hearts as much as with our brains; it is when we desire that we feel most alive. It is difficult to imagine existing as conscious beings without desire, and when we do imagine existing without desire we also tend to imagine existing without a sense of self (as in the Buddhist religion, which teaches of living both without desire and without self). Desire (or will), therefore, appears to be an essential ingredient in the construction of the human sense of self.

2. Desire is often a group phenomenon. Watch the crowd at any football game, and you’ll immediately see evidence for a fact that nearly everyone already agrees with: we feel desire in groups. Watch the crowd sway and swoon at a political rally or at a great jam-band rock concert, for instance, or watch a church spontaneously hush itself during a wedding or a funeral, or just watch any group of friends or lovers interact, and you’ll see that desire is something we most often don’t feel alone. Our favorite moments are our shared moments, and these moments could not possibly exist except as shared moments.

3. The “groupish” nature of desire explains our sensation of a “group self”. To the extent that desire creates our sense of self, and that our desires are phenomologically tied to groups rather than individuals, we can easily recognize a source of our natural sense of a group self. We can thus conclude — an important and highly original conclusion, with implications to philosophy, psychology, political science and religion — that the group self does occur naturally in human life.

So, there is it, my backyard satori. What do you think? Is this bigger news than the Higgs-Boson? Does it at least make more sense? I hope that some of you who have commented on earlier blog posts about egoism and the social nature of the self (this is also, of course, a major topic addressed in my book Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters)) will let me know what you think of this formula. I think I’m on to something, but I need your feedback to find out if I’m right or wrong.

8 Responses

  1. There needs to be another
    There needs to be another Midwestern LitKicks gathering. Perhaps an annual summit at Jamelah’s.

  2. Searle’s notion of collective
    Searle’s notion of collective intentionality bridges 2 & 3 above. Not sure it’s a new discovery but fresh insight often feels that way. 1 is controversial, it seems to me. I often pound a liter of water when I have no desire to do so because my idea of summiting a mountain requires it. Ideas sans desire is just as essential to a sense of self as desire is.

  3. Kevin, thanks for the pointer
    Kevin, thanks for the pointer to John Searle and collective intentionality. Absolutely relevant. I remember that John Searle’s name came up often when I was a philosophy student, but I obviously need to give myself a refresher course.

  4. Have you completely abandoned
    Have you completely abandoned any Buddhist interpretation or consideration of “desire?” Perhaps a consideration of the connection between “desire” and “suffering” could point the way to why the “group self” is often more destructive (especially self-destructive) than the individual self.

    Your interpretation brings to my mind the relationship between group/individual desire and group/individual suffering. Personally, I find I suffer more in groups, and thrive more on my own (though I do not mean this to suggest I am “self-sufficient” – merely that I prefer to work alone). This is often because my personal desire differs from the group and as a strong individual consciousness I tend to resist “going along to get along.” This seems to create a situation that results in a kind of “critical mass” where either I implode or the group explodes (often both).

    Are “will” and “desire” different things, components of the same things, or just two words for the same thing? You contrast two different thought-modes: “will” and “heart.” It seems you are arguing against “thinking with our will” and in favor of “thinking with our heart,” but this is not clear to me.

    I’ve been following your essays and thinking, waiting for things to come together a bit more. It’s very interesting where you are taking this ethical philosophizing. Your thinking about “group self” has been particularly interesting. And I tend to agree with you that human society may be shifting toward more need for “group philosophies” rather than the individual focus preferred by philosophers in the past. (I even tend to think it’s a good thing, even though I’m personally deeply antisocial and even antagonistic toward groups/group identity.)

    I wonder if you see anything detrimental about “group identity” – and I mean beyond the obvious stuff like lynchings and riots (which in your categories might actually be an example of a broken “group self”). For example, to refer to the old adage, “Can you have too much of a good thing?”

    Also, because it’s been a while since I’ve posted here, did you ever do much reading into participatory economics and its notions of group vs. individual?

  5. Cal, these are excellent
    Cal, these are excellent questions, thank you. Some answers:

    Have I completely abandoned any Buddhist interpretation of “desire”? No, though I can see why it might appear that I have. Ever since I was first exposed to Buddhist philosophy as a young teenager, I have found it very powerful and convincing, and this hasn’t changed. I still think the idea that “desire is suffering” makes sense, and I still consider myself a Buddhist in terms of how I try to think, how I try to live, how I make decisions.

    But I have been reaching for a way to reconcile my “Buddhist side” — my belief that desire is illusion, or that desire causes suffering — with my earthly side, my greedy, grasping, all-too-human desirous side. This is, of course, the eternal Buddhist struggle. I know that many people criticize Buddhist philosophy as overly negative, or pathologically self-denying. I don’t believe that this criticism is valid, but I understand that the Buddhist message is not complete unless it can address this criticism more successfully than it has yet. So, I suppose this whole inquiry of mine — all of Philosophy Weekend, probably — amounts to my attempt to reconcile Buddhist ideas with non-Buddhist ideas, my attempt to find a new and even greater synthesis. And the question of the collective self, or of the intrinsically social nature of existence, seems to me to point towards this greater synthesis. It’s an exploration, which is why my path sometimes meanders.

    Second: Cal, I think you’re reading my statement “we think with our heart” differently than I intended it. I am not contrasting “will” and “desire” — for the purpose of most of my writings on this blog, I use “will” and “desire” interchangeably. (The main difference is in the types of philosophy each word suggests — “desire” evokes Buddhism, while “will” evokes existentialism and pragmatism. But they mean the same thing.) When I said “we think with our heart”, I was just reiterating my previous statement about the willfulness of consciousness. It’s a repetition, not a contrast.

    Third, you ask if I have concerns about the implications of “group identity”. Yes, absolutely. Lynchings and riots are obvious examples of the “group mind gone bad” — and in fact just last weekend I mocked the ridiculous Fox News and CNN coverage of a Supreme Court decision about healthcare reform as an example of “cognitive bias gone wild” at the collective level. Yes, the group mind can sometimes be highly destructive (and highly wrong). All the more reason why we need to understand it better!

    Finally, no, I haven’t gotten very far into “participatory economics” but I will make a note to do so now. Do you have a particular writer in mind that I should start with?

  6. While this is compelling, I
    While this is compelling, I have to disagree with the thought that desire is a group phenomenon. Of course, we do find our selves having similar desires with groups of people. But I would argue that desire is more often an individual feeling or phenomenon. Especially in the USA, where individualism reigns supreme, people are rewarded for their individual desires. Like becoming “successful.” While I do see that many people share that desire, it often looks different to different people. Some people want to have lots of money, the biggest house on the block and a nice car. Me personally, I find that I am successful if I can sustain my happiness, not tie it to physical accumulation of more “stuff.” So I guess yea, desire is often a group phenomenon, but I would argue that it often looks different on an individual basis.

    I would also like to refute your statement that we feel most alive when we desire. When I notice my desire creeping up, I feel like I am deviating from my spirtual path if I follow it. I feel human, yes, but I see desire more as a hurdle in the path of feeling alive rather than something essential to it. Having desires is natural, but to me, so is letting go of them. If I have too many desires, I tend to lose focus on my blessings and lose my sense of gratitude for what I do have. Because there’s always some better spot, something more to own, someone in a better situation than myself. So I would argue that letting go of desire is when I feel most alive. Because then I can concentrate my gratitude for what I do have, rather than focussing on getting more of what I don’t have.

    Anyway, I’m glad you had this awakening. I appreciate your willingness to dive into these subjects.

  7. Nice post. Lots of
    Nice post. Lots of interesting takes here.

    For me, the first move I make in considering the “group self” is the pair, the couple. Parent/child, lover/lover, teacher/student, doctor/patient, one could go on and on/one could stop.

    There is the desiring of the same things, in the same direction. And then there is the tension (and sometimes the beauty) of the orthogonal desire. And then there is the striving to squelch desires (qua desire), and then there is the fear that my desire (singular as in forest) is the very (and only) thing that defines me (defining, by contrast and literally, the concept of “self-denial”).

    And then there is Ps. 27:4 – une chose que je d├ęsire


    captcha was “fordpa ether,” – ah, the Breton and Aragon would have loved this technology!

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