Tag Archives: Existentialism

Stop making things for normal people

I wrote this on a long bus journey.


Coach seats are clearly designed for normal people and not real people. That’s why they feel so uncomfortable for anyone that has ever spent a long time in one. I figure that the problem is that not nearly enough seat designers have read Nietzsche or Foucault, because, had they done so, they might have realized that the idea of a normal person is nonsensical, as is the notion of a normal sitting position. As it is, however, bus companies prove, time and time again that they care more about reinforcing their fictional norms than their real passengers, forcing us to endure discomfort while they are happy to believe that they have given us the best that modern seat design allows.

The book of proverbs continually asserts as a theme that “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes” and yet we all also think that others can be wrong. If others are fallible, but we are not, then we make ourselves epistemically different from the rest of the world – unique in our rightness. My thinking is the only thinking that makes sense to me and therefore the right thinking. So every single person on the face of the earth can quite justifiably think that they are abnormal. This applies equally in ethics, religion, aesthetics, etc.

There’s something of the preface problem here. If you don’t know the paradox, it is that a book of facts contains this modest statement in the preface
“Undoubtedly I have included facts in this book which will turn out, in time, to be false.”
With regard to every fact in the book , however, the author can say
“Fact a,b,c,etc is not false”
The two statements are clearly inconsistent, since clearly not both “some of the facts a,b,c,etc are false” and “none of the facts a,b,c,etc are false”. This harks back to the situation of normality, because every person believes themselves to be specifically exempt from the norm, while accepting that the norm applies generally. If peoples’ intuitions are on the right tracks, we need to accept the paradox between “persons a,b,c,etc are abnormal” and “persons a,b,c,etc are normal”. The paradox also applies to specific traits of an individual if we accept the notion of a normal person. We would tend to think that a person is generally normal while having specific abnormalities, but it seems obvious that if any particular trait of a person is examined in enough detail, it will turn out to be unusual in some way.

Here we have a clue to the metaphysical origin of the problem. The idea of an essence derived, not from specific existence, but from something general and universal, indicates that we might be struggling because the language we are using has Platonist underpinnings. I’m inclined to think that we have accidentally stumbled across a pretty strong case against Platonic universals, since their employment in language causes paradoxes of normality. If we once again think about the preface problem, but try to recognize the Platonism present, it starts to make a bit more sense. the two inconsistent propositions become “this list of facts has the universal essence of containing at least one false member.” and “Fact a,b,c,etc is not false.” There is no longer a paradox in play once we separate the actual list made up of specific members and the general nature of the list derived from a universal rule. The first statement is a general metaphysical claim and the second is a situated scientific fact.

The same thing applies to notions of normality. The first of the inconsistent propositions can be turned into “There is a universal norm for people” – a general metaphysical claim without any basis in the world of actual existence – and “Persons a,b,c,etc do not fit any universal norm” – a situated fact. So the paradox of normality comes from a kind of discourse that doesn’t want to tackle individuality in an honest way, so it uses universal truths to hide from the loneliness of collective abnormality. The whole concept of a human norm is a projection onto the future, as something that we hope to one day attain. Bus seat designers take note, abandon your ideas of normality – they are ruining your creations and come only from meaningless sophistry. There is no general norm, only specific norms for specific people, all of which are unique. Judge not with a common measure those things which have none, seek instead to make something ambiguous that can be interpreted by the actual user. You don’t need to worry about the non-existent.


That awkward moment when…

    I’m sure that you’re all well aware of the disturbing and growing internet trend of escaping from uncomfortable incidents by dismissing them as “that awkward moment.” People use it do describe any situation of embarrassment, or absurdity. There aren’t really many rules governing it’s use, the most important thing is the self-effacing sense of irony in the tone.
    One thing that is vital, however, is that the awkward moment is always that awkward moment; it can never be this awkward moment. This may seem like a bit of grammatic over-thinking, but I think that is sheds some light on the motivation for the expression. You see, once the moment is that moment, it becomes the past, and therefore a different moment from the current one; if it’s a different moment, I don’t have to worry about the implications or deal with the absurdity inherent in the situation.
    The expression perfectly sums up the turbulent and worrying attitude known as post-modernity. If modernity consists in heroizing, the moment, being self-consciously self-conscious and creating oneself in the process, then post-modernity is the ironic acceptance of the ultimate futility of such a life. If modernity is about this absurd moment of self-creation, then post-modernity is about looking back at that awkward moment when I tried to encounter my own Being-in-the-World.
    Is there something disingenuous about that? Can authenticity and irony ever be reconciled? Is it really important?

Some thoughts about religion and existentialism

    Somebody I consider very wise once told me that his favourite question to ask people is this: “What do you believe god is like? If you don’t believe in one, what is the god like that you don’t believe in?” It’s a beauty isn’t it. Immediately it gets down to the nuts and bolts of our humanity and finds out what people define themselves in relation to. Answers, as you would expect, are as varied as the people who give them, which highlights an unexpected issue for me. Are we talking about the same God? It’s unexpected because most of the time people assume that we are. That’s the basis of debates about God’s existence, tensions between science and religion and even issues in politics where a “moral” minority always feels persecuted because their God is left out.
    When Nietzsche prophesied the death of God, was he talking about the same God which Christians still worship as the living Jesus? While I’m convinced that we can never really get inside the minds of others, as a Christian and an existentialist, I feels that this dillemma needs to be answered, otherwise my religion is nothing more than a Sisyphean boulder to push until I die.
    To me, there appear to be at least two Gods that died in 1885. Firstly there is the God of the age – of German Idealism most devoutly worshipped by Kant and Hegel and which Nietzsche thinks of as an excuse for those too cowardly to accept their loneliness in the world. But there is also the God of tradition and morality which he regards as a crutch for the weak masses who are both unable and unwilling to think for themselves. This second aspect of God had really been dying slowly since the enlightenment and the killer blow had been struck by Darwin who proved that we didn’t need that kind of a God to survive.
    I would like to venture the opinion that God’s death needn’t be the end of the story. After all, that isn’t really the nature of the God of Christianity. I think that Nietzsche’s philosohy provides the most comphrehensive account of the Christian doctrine of the crucifixion that has ever been written, but stops short of accounting for the resurrection. Instead, I turn to Kierkegaard whose account of faith as belief in the impossible on the basis of the absurd continues seamlessly from the death of God to make it possible to worship a living saviour. The biblical version of faith relies on God dying in order to be fully glorified as the crowned king of the World. Only in dying can he reconcile man’s despair to himself. We must first recognize that we, and by extension our Gods, must die before there can be any kind of a hope of knowing God by faith.
    If it is true that for humans to see their place in the world properly we must first dispose of our crude metaphysical deities and divine excuses, then by ourselves, we can only ever reach the point of total despair. But that extends further than despair of God’s existence, into despairing even of our own unbelief. We are left as absurdists endlessly dancing a meaningless jig to the music of our own futility. But if we continue in faith, not rationally excusing our belief, nor asthetically calling it beautiful when it is clearly an abomination, then God makes manifest the evidence that was missing all along. The apostle Paul called faith “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” and I think that this really captures the idea of a God found through the process of atheism.
    So I can now answer my friend’s wonderful question. As for the God I don’t believe in, well that God has been dead and buried since 1885, but The God I do believe in is the resurrected Christ whose power is weakness, whose death is life and whose kingdom is not of this world.

Here is the question for you again:

“What do you believe god is like? If you don’t believe in one, what is the god like that you don’t believe in?”

The Existentialist Penguin

Two penguins were stood on an iceberg and one jokingly said to the other

“You look like you’re wearing a tuxedo.”

To which the other unflinchingly replied

“How do you know I’m not?”


            This is my favourite joke because it draws attention to something that is rarely talked about and even more rarely understood and appreciated. It points to the invisible and unchallenged assumptions that form the foundational bedrock of language and culture. How so? Because the first penguin was making an apparently reasonable joke and, but for the Socratic thinking of the second penguin, that would have been fine. If the second penguin had done as so many other penguins in the pub had done before him and chuckled politely we would have a completely unremarkable interaction. Instead, we have a beautifully crafted joke about a joke, from which it is almost impossible to identify the source of irony. The second penguin did more than subvert a joke, though. I like to think that the first penguin left that iceberg a different bird; one that thought more, and more deeply, about what he assumed with his words and actions. He probably stayed up all night knowing the real meaning of existential angst for the first time in his life because for once somebody has questioned him. No-one had questioned his facts or his figures, but they had questioned him as a being that is able to be fundamentally wrong in a way that he did not even know existed.

            But the comedy (and I mean that in the philosophical sense of confronting absurdity) doesn’t stop there. Heidegger observed that we are all thrown as individuals into a world of meaning, which we do not need to observe and represent linguistically because the work has always already been done for us by the culture in which we find ourselves. But that culture, that language, that lens of sense is not an objective and cold reprint of reality – if it were we would be no better off with it than without it, for we would need a representation of the representation ad infinitum. It is “the world in which I exist” and as such can never be devoid of my being there. Like the first penguin, we vacuously assume to see the world without us in it as if that were a better form of the world to see but then we are challenged by that second and most lovably irritating penguin who invites is to once again become what we already are – angst-ridden subjects in a world of absurdity.

            This has implications. This has clear and measurable effects in this life. If, as the existentialist penguin supposes, our words are devoid, as it were, of objective foundations and rest merely upon the shifting sands of culture then we have reason to despair. Reality itself is compromised and truth has collapsed under its own weight. Nietzsche was right to preach the death of God for all of the assurances which we attributed to the divine have turned out to be smoke and mirrors. Morality can never be solid, certainty is impossible and love… well love is only a feeling.

            Yet the joke has a punchline, albeit an implicit one. Maybe our crude metaphysical ideas have fallen flat and maybe we have lost faith in those things that had comforted us before, but still there might be some salvation. Maybe we can hope for a truth that is not based on objectivity, a morality which rests on convictions, a love which has finality in its limitation, a faith which stands on the strength of the absurd and a God who embraces death like one of us. Such a hope can never be given, only ever chosen, but I like to think that our newly awakened penguin did not fall into the pit of self-despair and end his misery in cowardly inauthenticity but carried on living with a better appreciation of just how comic the whole situation is.