Thursday, June 24, 2010

Amazing May 17

Being and Non-Being 2

A different class of Realities

As to what reality is philosophers and physicists disagree among themselves and with each other. Be that as it may, what concerns us here is what precisely Being is on the one hand and indeed also what precisely Non-being is or is not on the other. May informs us that “being” belongs to that class of realities, like “love” and “consciousness” which we really cannot subdivide or boil down into different parts. In fact, we cannot abstract them at all without losing precisely what we set out to study in the first place. Needless to say, this does not relieve us from the responsibility of trying to understand and describe them, even if we cannot rigidly define them.

May quotes the French existential philosopher, Gabriel Marcel who commented that in modern culture what was lacking or indeed repressed was in fact a sense of Being, a vibrant ontology. We have lost our sense of being, Marcel argues, and consequently a vibrant sense of our own identity and meaning in the world because firstly we subordinate our being to our function in the world. We know ourselves as doctors, dentists, carpenters, mechanics, shop assistants, bus drivers or taxi drivers or by whatever economic function we hold in the world of everyday survival. Secondly, this modern world has “mass collectivist trends” and “widespread conformist tendencies” which dull anyone’s sense of his/her own being.

The Whole is greater than the Sum of its Parts

While May does not use the title I have quoted immediately above these words, the sense behind them is exactly what he means by encountering the person in his/her total Being or Dasein. I have capitalised these words for my purposes here, not May. In like manner, this is what Gabriel Marcel meant when he stated that when traditional psychoanalysis had done its best with a patient by isolating all the suppressed drives and instincts, it had dealt with everything except the person’s Being. A person’s Being simply cannot be reduced to its constituent parts.

The term the existentialist therapists use for the distinctive character of human existence is Dasein. Binswanger, Kuhn and others designate their schools as Daseinsanalyse. Da is the German for there and Sein means Being. The patient or the significant other is the Being who is literally there in all his reality, totality, uniqueness and authenticity. He/she is the Being who can be conscious of, and therefore responsible for, his/her existence. Existentialists talk about humankind as “Being in itself” and “Being for itself.” In other words he/she is a Being who can choose for himself/herself. His existing involves choosing or freedom. Also, to this extent man shapes the project which is existentially his lived life, as Sartre would phrase it.

Being must be understood, May argues, as a verb part, as a present participle. This implies that the person is in the process of actually being. Being for May, and indeed for all the existentialists, implies process and potential or “potentia” to give it its Latin form. Existentially, this implies that Being is a Becoming. Being is something akin to the “acorn” in so far as this latter contains all the potential of becoming an oak tree. Let us listen to May’s words here:

We can understand another human being only as we see what he is moving toward, what he is becoming and we can know ourselves only as we “project our potential into action.” The significant tense for human beings is thus the future - that is to say, the critical question is what I am pointing toward, what I will be in the immediate future. (Ibid., p. 97)

Again, May goes on to quote a rather wonderful and beautiful passage from Pascal where the latter comments on the human being’s awareness of his own mortality which existentially (my word, obviously not Pascal’s) separates him out from his fellow unself-conscious creatures. Because this passage is so beautiful, and so existential, dare I use this word yet again, that it is worth re-quoting here:

Man is only a reed, the feeblest reed in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the entire universe to arm itself in order to annihilate him: a vapour, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But were the universe to crush him, man would yet be more noble than that which slays him, because he knows that he dies, and the advantage that the universe has over him, of this the universe knows nothing. (Quoted ibid., p.98)

Descartes got it wrong. He put the cart before the horse literally. For the existentialist it is never “I think, therefore I am.” It is always “I am, therefore I think, I feel and I will.” Indeed, it might be something like, “I am, therefore, I am a unique and authentic holistic Being, thinking, feeling and acting as a unity.” This last is obviously contrived and somewhat over-wrought as a statement, but nevertheless I believe it makes the point I am striving to express.

The “I-am-ness” of Being

The above subtitle is my awkwardness of expression, not May’s, but I cannot at the moment find a more suitable expression for what I wish to write about here in relationship to one’s own experience of being a subject or a Being.

(i) May points out that the patient/client’s experience of “I am“ is certainly anything but a solution to a person’s problems. Rather it is the precondition for the person’s working out of that solution for himself or herself.

(ii) The “I am” experience is an important step or milestone on the road to self-awareness and self-consciousness. It is a grasping of oneself at the very level of the Dasein, that Being actually, physically and really there with the significant other or with the therapist. The patient/client must do this grasping, and it can never be given to him/her by any therapist no matter how good. May says that such has been the major error of some therapies like “relationship therapy.”

(iii) May then makes a very interesting point that Being or the “I am” experience can never be reduced to introjections of social or ethical norms. This is what Nietzsche meant when he used the phrase “beyond good and evil.” To the extent that my sense of existence is authentic, it is precisely not what others have told me.

(iv) The “I am” experience is simply not a phase in the development of the ego. In fact the “I am” experience occurs at a more fundamental level of Being which is precisely the very conditions for the ego to grow and develop. Unlike the ego the sense of Being refers to one’s whole experience, unconscious as well as conscious. The ego is the subject of the subject-object relationship, whereas Being per se or in itself is logically prior to this very dichotomy. A contemporary trend in society to inflate the ego beyond its true role is in itself a symptom of the repression of Being, the repression of our sense of any ontological reality.

To be continued

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