Reconceptualizing the Idea of the Self within Western Philosophy:
The Existence-Reason Binary and the Nonrational Transcendental Self
In order to overcome the existence-reason binary present in philosophy, I propose the notion of nonrational transcendental self.
In philosophy, the ontological question asks, “How might a self understand its own being?” Views on the self were initially dominated by the rationalists, who argue that reason, rather than sense experience, reveals the true nature of things. In response, a subsequent movement called existentialism critiques rationalism for mistaking the human being as a stagnant thinker. Existentialists argue that human beings are not merely rational beings, but also dynamic subjects who experience and change. From the existentialist viewpoint, reason by itself is wholly incapable of capturing the subject’s lived experience. In my observation, the rationalist-existentialist debate gave rise to a conceptual binary, where existence and reason are mutually exclusive. It is my view that this binary hinders the revolutionary potential of existentialist philosophy. The binary is problematic because it disallows an alternative understanding of the self outside of reason and existence. There are complexities in our nature that occur outside the binary, such as our nonrational selves. If we continue to approach ontology without breaking the binary, we can never accurately or sufficiently answer the basic question of how to understand our own being.
My answer to resolving the binary is to propose a rethinking of the self as nonrational and transcendental. First, I will induct nonrationality as an alternative to the binary that neither rejects nor is wholly subsumed under reason or its counterpart, existence. I begin by exploring examples of the transcendental self as exemplified in the Kantian subjects of moral and aesthetic judgments. I then introduce the notion of a nonrational transcendental self, which is the self that experiences and knows, but does not judge. Finally, I show that the nonrational transcendental self truly exists within us and reveals itself most clearly when we experience life alongside the question of suicide and when we experience a moment of beauty. The need to convey the nonrational transcendental self transpires from the restrictions of the binary. Therefore, I shall first identify the emergence of the reason-existence binary by tracing the use of reason and existence in historical ontological debates.
The rationalist view of the self begins with Descartes, who articulates that rational self-reflection reveals the true nature of the human being as the thinking self, the eternal mind (Descartes – Translation: Haldane, 1991). Hegel, likewise, perceives reason as the proper lenses through which to discover the human being’s true nature and place in the world. In Hegelian philosophy, history is the linear unfolding of reason and all of our individual subjectivities are merely subsumed under this hyper-rational unfolding (Hegel – Translation: Hartman, 1953).
Such extreme rationalism is challenged by the Kantian philosophy of transcendental idealism, which curtails the overreach of pure reason by designating it to a regulatory rule (Kant – Translation: Guyer and Wood, 1998). According to transcendental idealism, we are limited to knowing and perceiving phenomena (i.e. things as they appear in time and space). We do not have access to noumena (“things-as-they-are-in-themselves”) (Kant – Translation: Guyer and Wood, 1998). Reason, as our structural framework, can help us decide upon the truth of phenomena, but it cannot conclude anything substantial about noumena. As we are incapable of perceiving our noumenal selves, it is an illegitimate use of reason to attempt to rationally discover our true selves (Kant – Translation: Guyer and Wood, 1998). Consequently, Kant reintroduces the question of the self-understanding its own being, allowing existentialists to arrive on the scene and offer a viewpoint opposing the rationalists.
Existentialism emerges with Kierkegaard’s publication of Either/Or in 1843. Kierkegaard points out that our singular viewpoint to life is our existing and subjective self. Objective truth only has meaning in relation to a knower, who is subjective and dynamic. Thus, Kierkegaard criticizes Descartes for mistakenly substituting the human being as an “infinitely indifferent” knower and explicitly rejects Cartesian rationalism as “a mirage [where] everything is and nothing becomes” (Kierkegaard – Translation: Hong and Hong, 1978). For Kierkegaard, reason, either as some ultimate methodology towards truth or as a priori structures of cognition and understanding, fails to account for our fundamental nature as those who experience.
After Kierkegaard, existentialist thinker Heidegger published Being and Time in 1927. Being and Time reorients the ontological approach by introducing the concept dasein, which translates to being-in-the-world (Heidegger – Translation: Macquarrie and Robinson, 1962). In contrast to the rationalists who believe that true human nature can only be understood when abstracted away from experience, Heidegger argues that human beings are dasein and can know themselves only as they exist in the world. All philosophical inquiry on human nature must acknowledge our essential condition as dasein if it is to be accurate and effective. By contrast, ontology, which claims to understand human nature independent of its being-in-the-world, is illegitimate.
Then, in 1943, another existentialist named Sartre published Being and Nothingness. Echoing Kantian thought, Sartre argues that we cannot ask what the nature of the human being in itself is. When we try to answer ontologically about our noumenal selves, we immediately establish a duality (between “I” as the subject and “I” as the referred-to object) that is essentially at odds with the oneness of self that we associate with the ‘true self’ (Sartre – Translation: Barnes, 1956). Instead of asking what being is, Sartre recommends that we ask how being is. In other words, what are our modes of being? Sartre states that the human being is a factical self, which refers to our physical being grounded in concrete circumstances (Sartre – Translation: Barnes, 1956). The human being is also a transcendent self, which means that we are not only our factical self, but also all of our negations and possibilities. For example, the seemingly insignificant waiter at a restaurant is not merely a waiter. That is, as a human being, the waiter’s existence does not depend on his or her being waiter. The waiter may be countless other things apart from a waiter and is still yet to be many things in the future. Sartre’s point is that our existence as human beings cannot be fully captured by the roles our factical selves play. For Sartre, the human being is essentially fluid and full of possibility (Sartre – Translation: Barnes, 1956). Therefore, Sartre considers that reason as logical form, which accepts negation and exclusion as definitive, cannot sufficiently account for the human being.
My purpose in explicating the ontological debate between rationalists and existentialists is to show that within the philosophical tradition, there is a shift from understanding the human being as a stagnant thinker to an experiencing subject. I argue that the debate which motivated this shift in thinking also unintentionally produced a conceptual binary between reason and existence. Existentialism presents itself as a purposeful critique of rationalism. The language of the existentialists is intentionally contrasted to the language of the rationalists. The existentialists describe the true nature of the human being as subjective, dynamic, temporal, fluid, and grounded; rationalists, as objective, unchanging, eternal, and abstract. In reading existentialists’ work, the reader would think that the human being is essentially a dynamic subject in place of a stagnant thinker, but never both. Similarly, truth for the human being is seen as either subjective or objective, but not both. With such emphasized contrast, ‘existence’ becomes a concept that stands as a symbolic counterpoint to reason. This is the reason-existence binary.
The reason-existence binary is undesirable and stunts the progress existentialism might make in answering the basic ontological question. The existentialists intended to reclaim the dynamic aspect of the human being in an effort to balance out the extreme rationalism preceding them. However, by presenting existence in contrast to, rather than alongside, reason, existentialism merely designated the human being to another extreme. The existentialists’ failure of a balancing act reveals itself as an issue within their own systems of thought. Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre all grapple with tensions resulting from the binary within their own philosophies.
Part I: Limitations of the Binary Manifested as Existentialist Tensions
Kierkegaard’s Unintended Inverse Hegelianism
When Kierkegaard states that “subjectivity is truth”, he effectively turns Hegel (who saw objectivity as the one legitimate truth) on his head (Kierkegaard – Translation: Hong and Hong 1978). Kierkegaard rejects the hyper-objective, linear, rational, and systematic nature of Hegelianism and purposefully aims to be anti-systematic and anti-rationalist. However, Kierkegaard himself proposes that an individual must go through three stages (the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious) in order to encounter a true self (Kierkegaard – Translation: Hong and Hong, 1978). These are the stages that an individual encounters when turning inward in his or her own subjectivity. The final stage climaxes in paradox and culminates in a person of faith. So then, it seems that Kierkegaard’s philosophy does entail a system that we must acknowledge in order to understand our own being. The irony is that by protesting objectivity with subjectivity, Kierkegaard unwittingly creates his own dialectical system and becomes the mirror image of the systematic and idealistic Hegelianism that he intended to counter. Theodor W. Adorno calls Kierkegaard’s philosophy “inverse Hegelianism” since the historical dialectic of objective ‘Reason’ in Hegelian philosophy is parallel to Kierkegaard’s inward dialectic of the subject’s subjectivity. Whereas the Hegelian subject must look further and further outwards to discover truth and the authentic self, the Kierkegaardian subject must turn deeper and deeper inwards to discover truth and the faithful self (Adorno – Translation: Hullot-Kentor, 1989). Thus, whereas Hegel’s setting and subject is all of history, Kierkegaard’s “objective inwardness strictly excludes objective history”, so that “history vanishes” in Kierkegaard (Adorno – Translation: Hullot-Kentor, 1989). However, without any sense of history, what is left in Kierkegaard’s philosophy is the abstract self posed against the abstract universal, interacting in a subject-object dialectic that Adorno calls “Hegel [inverted and interiorized]” (Adorno – Translation: Hullot-Kentor, 1989). That is, Kierkegaard neither avoids systematizing the process of the self understanding its own being nor refrains from abstracting (i.e. a self without a concrete history is an abstract self). In short, Kierkegaard fails to fully account for the existing subject and only manages to postulate it against the thinking subject.
Heidegger’s Absurd Waiting
Heidegger’s dasein is both being-in-the-world and being-not-of-this-world. That is, we cannot seek to understand our being as existing separate from the world we exist in and yet, there is the curious truth that we are born into and pass away from the world. We “come from” and “go away to” someplace not of this world. From this, Heidegger concludes that the significance and uniqueness of our time in this world are due to our temporality. As finite beings, every moment in time is unique. Our specific time also defines each of us as a unique being traveling different paths and encountering different ontological possibilities which become available to us by virtue of our specific past and present (Heidegger – Translation: Macquarrie and Robinson, 1962). Time is therefore responsible for determining the significance of all the opportunities we might have in this world. But since the importance of time itself is that it represents our sudden arrival and departure from this world from who knows where, then meaning itself also comes from who knows where.
Heidegger wrote Being and Time in the 1920s and 1930s, directly after the First World War. Like the famous Lost Generation, Heidegger also addresses an era when the traditional ideologies and frameworks that gave us social identities and gave our actions meaning were quickly fading out. (Preceding Heidegger, Nietzsche defines that era as an era in which “God is dead” in contrast to previous generations which offered “God” and by extension, Christian morals, tradition, etc (Nietzsche – Translation: Nauckhoff, 2001). God and the institution of religion and tradition provided frameworks of significance which dasein could attach itself to find significance.) The era bore a sense of decay. The hollowness of a hollow man was no longer an individual problem, but an indicator of a lack of possibilities in the world of that generation. If the world shines through an authentic dasein (being-in-the-world), but the world itself is decaying, then an authentic dasein would decay instead of thrive.
Heidegger recognizes this issue and offers the solution of reorienting dasein in order to increase its receptivity of meaning. Essentially, Heidegger states that if there is less meaning in the world, then we should be more receptive to it so that we can get more of it. If dasein is taken solely as a being in time, an increase in receptivity simply means a more anxious waiting for meaning to come. This is because meaning only comes from that “other world” where we came from to be born and where we go once we die. But Heidegger does not give any deadline for how long dasein must wait for meaning to appear. Indeed, he cannot even guarantee that meaning will ever come back. But if we are headed towards a meaningless world, we would be waiting forever. In Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, two individuals “actively” wait in a wasteland for “Godot”, an unknown figure who promises meaning, but cannot promise when, where, or how. This uncertain, but hopeful waiting depicts the issue that Heidegger’s solution runs into. In terms of time, Heidegger’s solution becomes a rather paradoxical (and apparently, parody-able) form of “active” waiting. Heidegger tries to reclaim our being from abstraction by positing dasein, but his philosophy is affected by the binary which separates existing from knowing. Ultimately, he ends up in a strange position of hopeful absurdism. In this position, he relies on a vague abstraction that renders even the being-in-the-world altogether hazy and opaque. Thus, despite Heidegger’s intent to have dasein reconquer itself as a grounded being, we arrive at a point where the absence of a metaphysical quality of dasein results, once again, in abstraction
Sartre’s Difficulty with Dualism
When Sartre introduces the factical self and the transcendent self to the reader, he explicitly states that this division exists only because they are necessary to parse out the modes of being. Sartre does not intend to propose a metaphysical dualism, where the factical and transcendent self are truly two different selves or beings. Although Sartre posits a disclaimer of his dualism, there is still ultimately a tension in saying that being-in-itself and being-for-itself are mutually exclusive and yet every human being is somehow both. Sartre’s preoccupation with being as always more than it appears in a given situation sits in direct contrast to reason, which only applies to appearances. This contrast motivates Sartre to depict human beings as half factual knowers and half fluid, illogical beings. This is an uncomfortable division both because our rational and existing selves do not exist unequivocally separate from each other and because we also have a nonrational self. Sartre himself identifies this issue as the “identity nihilation” or “internal negation” issue, stating that his view renders the self in a perpetually unstable equability where identity as absolute cohesion rejects diversity and unity can only be a synthesis of multiplicity (Sartre – Translation: Barnes, 1956). The self, as both whole and diverse, is never quite captured due to the oppositional nature between existence and reason that Sartre assumes.
The binary itself is not easily grasped, but its effects are discernible. The tensions that emerge from the binary reveal that if the assumptions which underlie the argument are extreme and unfounded, the content itself is affected and distorted. To understand this in a more general sense, it is often what we consider possible, rather than the reality of the situation, which dictates the outcome. If we never venture down certain pathways because we never consider their existence, then those avenues of thought will never open to us, not because they cannot exist, but because we consider them unable to exist. The philosopher Derrida speaks to the violence of writing, of naming things, and of defining spectrums and hierarchies through names (Derrida, 1976). Writing separates, and it is within those separations that battles are fought. Writers always write in the context of previous thought, and so even though their intentions are to break cycles of thought, the methodology of writing itself binds them to reiterate the same structural violence that previous writers have also engaged in. In short, modern philosophers often end up writing within the dialogue set up by previous philosophers and find it difficult, if not impossible, to break out of that dialogue and introduce new possibilities.
If the possibilities of the conversation are predetermined by restrictions on expression, the historical limitations will stunt the conversation and block the creation of new pathways of thought. While Kierkegaard provides an illuminating analysis of how Hegelianism neglected essential considerations for how the existing subject should come to understand itself, at the same time, Kierkegaard’s reactionary philosophy proves detrimental to the originality of his own philosophy. The content is simply turned on its head, but the ultimate goal of understanding remains out of reach. Heidegger’s concept of dasein reorients ontology into a humbler form, reminding us that we do not experience Being except as being-in-the-world and as being-towards-death. He criticizes the philosophical tradition of forgetting that our existence is wholly about being present-in-the-world. However, Heidegger falls prey to his own criticism when he separates human existence from whatever truth or meaning there was to be found in our existence. To Sartre’s credit, Sartre identifies and denounces the binary from the very beginning. Yet, despite this awareness, his own philosophy ends up depending on conceptual divisions born from the binary.
What all of these philosophers point out but struggle to prove within their own philosophies is that the human being is always the meeting ground for both reason and existence. By imposing this binary, we become stuck with a mentality that cannot imagine outside of you are either this or that. There is no space for a new beginning because violence has already been done unto the space of possibility. While one side can point out the defects of the other, unfortunately, the inverse of a structure does not overturn the system nor introduce anything new, and so it cannot successfully escape the faults or solve the problems of the original structure. Inversion and rejection are still confined to the original sphere of thought and that influence is impossible to hide, even though the rest of the content may be revolutionary and inspiring. That is why the existence-reason binary limits existentialists’ answer to the ontological question of the self knowing its own being.
Part II: Rethinking the Transcendental Self
In light of the existence-reason binary, I offer an interpretation of a self that is transcendental and nonrational. The nonrational transcendental self is a transcendental self because it allows for a shift in perspective without loss of identity. It is nonrational because the shift is unconcerned with justifications. There is no categorizing or narrating the experience for a greater purpose. There is no expectation of ‘what ought to happen’. There is no need to prioritize anything within the experience. The nonrational transcendental self is the self that experiences its own being without having to focus or impose on it. It is the self that exists alongside the constant question of suicide and it is the self that arises when we experience moments of beauty.
Section A: The Question of Suicide
Camus famously said, “There is only one really serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy” (Camus – Translation: O’Brien, 1991). Camus’ infamous line was already preceded by a long line of thinkers grappling with the morality and rationality of suicide. St. Augustine, inspired by Plato and followed by Aquinas, states the Christian prohibition on suicide. When intolerable evils descend upon us, the truly pious withstand the onslaught and prove their virtue, whereas those who escape by suicide have sullied God’s gift of life to us (Saint Augustine – Translation: Paolucci, 1962). Suicide was seen as the ultimate unrepentable sin. St. Augustine also considers suicide irrational, pointing out that if suicide is meant to preserve happiness or escape unhappiness by avoiding pain, then that is foolishness for there is no happiness to be found in either giving up in the midst of fighting evil or in knowing that you can commit suicide (Saint Augustine – Translation: Paolucci, 1962).
Then, David Hume famously wrote a defense of suicide as a rational act, stating, “suicide is no transgression of our duty to God” (Hume, 1783). God granted all beings and things with their proper functions and powers (Hume, 1783). A river has the power to stop man because God willed it. Yet, if man is able to create machinery that utilizes energy from a river or can divert a river from its course, this interaction causes no discord in the creation and would not be a crime in the eyes of God (Hume, 1783). God has given us the ability to judge and enact such behavior. Likewise, Hume asserts that there is no crime of “turning a few ounces of blood from their natural channels” (Hume, 1783). In this case, God has given us the ability to judge and enact suicide. Furthermore, just as the river turns according to the laws of matter and motion, so does the human body react according to the laws of nature as set by God (Hume, 1783).
Hume offers several situations in which suicide might be consistent with our self-interest (e.g. age, sickness, and misfortune), but is also quick to state, “no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping… for such is our natural horror of death” (Hume, 1783). Thus, if someone ultimately judges that he or she is in a situation so haunted by suffering that it cannot be relieved except through death, then not only is committing suicide not a moral transgression, but it is also a perfectly rational act.
Richard Brandt furthers Hume’s argument that suicide can be rational by way of a utilitarian argument. Brandt argues that a rational agent can make a sufficiently informed comparison about the likely utility between the two possible futures of survival and suicide and make an intelligible and rational choice from there. However, in response to Brandt, Christopher Cowley suggests that the concept of rationality does not apply to suicide. Judgements about suicide, such as those espoused by Brandt, are certainly intelligible (Cowley, 2006). However, these judgments are “third-person descriptions… implicitly assuming rationality” and “[maintaining] a clinical detachment” so that we end up “talking about the victim rather than to or with the victim” (Cowley, 2006). Cowley thus points out that asking the rational question of “what would anyone do in this situation” is more an abstract hypothesis and less about the agent and the agent’s act of suicide (Cowley, 2006).
Furthermore, debating the rationality of suicide misses a major point, that rationality is essentially future-oriented. We call an act rational or irrational by presupposing a future in which we will have to face the consequences of that act (Cowley, 2006). Therefore, while we might consider someone’s reason for suicide rational or irrational, suicide itself cannot be properly judged by rationality because it is the erasure of the future that is a precondition of judging an act as rational or irrational. Thus, Cowley “rejects the exhaustive dichotomy between rational and irrational” because both concepts “run out” and fail to provide a language that sufficiently accounts for a discussion on suicide (Cowley, 2006).
Rationality presumes justification, which not only assumes a future but also abstracts from the subject’s experience. However, if Cowley’s point stands, then how are we to approach the question of suicide? Who is the agent in question, if not a rational agent? Insofar as suicide is a human question, the answer relies heavily on how we understand the human being. Here, I hope that my notion of the nonrational transcendental self will help articulate our experience with the issue of suicide.
Notice this: Although Camus and others have posed the question of suicide intellectually, we actually experience this question at every moment of our conscious lives. We do not necessarily confront the question (in that we do not feel compelled to justify our existences to ourselves every passing second), but simply by virtue of living, we exist alongside it.
The rational self often resists; justifications often mean “this despite that.” But the nonrational self simply exists, without justification, and therefore, without resistance. It does not strive to endure because it is not about life, it is simply living. When a wind passes through the grass, we do not think the grass “resists.” Instead, it simply exists in its swaying along with the wind. Afterwards, we reason that the wind made the grass sway, and while this is very much true, this is a justification after the initial experience, where reason serves as a convenient framework with which to understand and recognize our experiences. Thus, the nonrational transcendental self settles the anxiety of needing a reason to live in an arbitrary world by accepting that it simply is, outside of want and reason. As the question of suicide is reborn every moment, so this self co-exists alongside that question.
Returning to Camus’ question, I realize that suicide is not simply a grand philosophical issue, but an ever-present question. Of course, as Cowley admits, suicide can be discussed in terms of rationality. I think that this makes sense. After all, suicide has a widespread effect, and it is only natural that we abstract from the agent and act itself in an attempt to more deeply understand why such tragic events happen. However, the question of suicide also exists separate from our reasons to live or die. We know this because we have all witnessed that the reality of suicide exists beyond rationality. Sadly, many people who have every reason to live also die. We, as survivors, turn to religion and philosophy and literature, searching for reasons that might explain why they had to go when clearly, they had so much to live for. But regardless of the many arguments we might construct to justify a longer life, the insurmountable fact is that they have passed out of this shared world. As such, suicide is neither rational nor irrational. It is nonrational, which means that although existence can be rationalized, existence is or is not despite the rationalization. Suicide, not as an act to be judged, but as a constant question hand-in-hand with living, illuminates this aspect of the self.
The nonrational self is also transcendental. The common understanding of transcendental is “a noumenal realm above”, but the nonrational transcendental self in this situation is a “settling.” The self that transcends life-or-death is not a self that rises above existence, but a self that is simply situated in one’s own being. Even facing the question of suicide, the nonrational transcendental self does not reach towards immorality nor does it turn within itself. There is no extortion and no resistance. It simply exists as it is. It is the mind before the mind is filled with thoughts. It is the state of existence that occupies the middle ground between wanting to live and wanting to die. This middle ground is what often allows people to survive depression, which sometimes manifests as an indifference to life and inability to hope. Think about the reverse situation. Many people who feel they have no reason to live continue to live. Whether it is because we are depressed or uncertain or have simply never seriously entertained the question, we can exist without a reason to live.
While Hume and Brandt rightfully argue that we can make value judgments about what sort of life is worth living, the rational argument does not account for the actual state of our existence. Why not? This is because for human beings, the absence of reason to live is not a reason to die. Therefore, to discuss suicide as though it aligns with a linear spectrum of rationality is to collapse this inequality and equate the absence of reason to live with a reason to die. This discounts the struggle that many depressed and/or suicidal people struggle through. But intuitively, we all understand this inequality and we recognize the significance of the inequality. It is why we feel that there is no reason sufficient enough to justify suicide. However, for this intuitive truth to be true, we must grant that the human being exists and sees itself capable of existing outside the reason-existence binary and occupying the middle ground of the nonrational transcendental self.
Section B: The Moral and Aesthetic Judgment
Before I further explain the notion of a nonrational transcendental self, I wish to reference other types of judgments that are nonrational. Since the kinds of judgments we make portray the kind of being we are, I think this will help us to imagine concepts of the self outside the existence-reason binary.
After his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant pursued other capacities of self-representation and self-understanding in the Second and Third Critiques, respectively. The Critique of Practical Reason contains Kant’s moral philosophy, which is premised on the principle that we must understand ourselves as we appear to ourselves. In other words, even if reason postulates a phenomenal determinism in the physical world, since we appear to ourselves as moral beings and morality implies agency, we must also take ourselves to be agents capable of affect. The reasoning here is practical: Given how we appear to ourselves, we must believe the necessary condition which allows for this appearance. Specifically, given that we appear to ourselves as moral agents, we must necessarily take ourselves to be free agents (Kant – Translation: Beck, 1956). This differs from the pure reason of Kant’s First Critique, which was discussed as a cognitive capacity functioning largely to structure our experience through concepts and categories.
However, the Kantian self that engages in practical reason and which makes the moral judgment is inequivalent to a nonrational transcendental self. The nonrational transcendental self is not concerned with its own appearance or with self-justifications. Kant’s moral judgment is nonetheless a rational judgment, only it has to do with practical reasoning, which is bottom-top because it reasons from appearance whereas pure reasoning, which structures based on a priori conditions of cognition and pure categories of laws and structures, works top-down. To translate this back into our discussion of suicide, saying that the nonrational transcendental self exists alongside the ever-present question of suicide is inequivalent to saying that a person has a moral incentive to live. The moral incentive often appears as a justification, supplying a ‘despite’ in an intellectual, but not necessarily existential problem.
Kant’s Third Critique, the Critique of Judgment conveys the aesthetic judgment (i.e. a judgment of beauty). The aesthetic judgment employs the individual’s capacities of imagination and understanding to enter into the mental state of freeplay (Kant – Translation: Walkter, 1963). While both imagination and understanding draw inspiration from the manifold of intuition, they are pure faculties or free faculties. Imagination is the synthesis of a manifold of intuition, and the synthesis is not totally predetermined by the content of the manifold. For example, in imagination, the intuitions of a horse and a horn can be freely synthesized into a unicorn. Understanding is the realm of pure categories (in contrast to concepts which require and apply to specific objects). In understanding, there are unifying laws (e.g. causation) that shape our experience of phenomena without discriminating between empirical details. Then, for freeplay to be the interaction of two pure mental capacities means that the aesthetic judgment is “merely subjective” (Kant – Translation: Walkter, 1963). That is, freeplay occurs only when the subject has removed him/herself from the world (i.e. become a disinterested subject) and re-presented an object that is no longer in front of him/her to him/herself. The aesthetic judgment deals only with this re-presentation. So, an aesthetic judgment does not apply to the object itself the way concepts do. The aesthetic judgment is thus another judgment different from a purely rational judgment. However, there is a quirk in the aesthetic judgment: Despite being completely subjective, our aesthetic judgment necessitates an ought; that is, everyone else ought to agree with our judgment of what is beautiful. Although an aesthetic judgment cannot claim logical universal validity (since it does not refer to a concept), we present our judgments of beauty with a universal voice (Kant – Translation: Walkter, 1963). Thus, the aesthetic judgment “must involve a claim to subjective universality” (Kant – Translation: Walkter, 1963). For Kant, the aesthetic judgment, in bringing together subjectivity and universality, allows us to re-imagine or re-present the human as a being whose sociability and individuality are seamless. In this way, the aesthetic judgment offers an alternative to the existence-reason binary because freeplay, the pure categories of reason, is communicable.
However, it is worth noting that there is something a bit sinister about the ‘ought.’ Imagine that in your encounter with the question of suicide, someone comes up to you and tells you that you ought to live. It is a patronizing remark on behalf of the speaker. Hence, this ‘ought’ which is essential in rendering a statement into a judgment and initially seems to prove the human capacity for freeplay and sociability, actually betrays that the aesthetic judgment is not only about subjective appreciation and value, but also assumes an objective universal validity.
While the Kantian subject of the aesthetic judgment offers an alternative to the self shuttling back and forth within the reason-existence binary, it is also not quite equivalent to the nonrational transcendental self. The nonrational transcendental self has no reason to prescribe an “ought” to anyone else. Since it is free from reason or desire, it has no need to prove itself or to display its faculties by way of judgments. As we shall see, the nonrational transcendental self appears less in a judgment of beauty and more in a moment of beauty.
Section C: From a Judgment of Beauty to a Moment of Beauty
The meeting ground of reason and existence and the full-fledged appearance of the nonrational transcendental self occur in a moment of beauty. The novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog illustrates the reveal of the nonrational transcendental self in a moment of beauty. In the story, we meet a young girl named Paloma who very rationally comes to the conclusion that life is not worth staying for and that suicide is the best option (Barbery, 2006). At the end of the novel, Paloma rescinds this decision of suicide, not because she finds some rational reason that justifies her life or tells her that things are bound to get better, but because Paloma discovers for herself that what makes life worthwhile is the inexplicable and nonrational moments of beauty that one encounters amidst, alongside, and even within the suffering that seems to be most of life.
Paloma’s life seems to take a turn for the better when she meets Madame Michel, the concierge, and Kakuro Ozu, a new occupant of one of the luxury apartments. But then, without any particular cause and certainly without a satisfying rational justification (i.e. a mad man’s dance is no reason for someone to die), Madame Michel is hit by an automobile and dies. Paloma feels then what it might mean to die, what it really means to face a “never again” (Barbery, 2006). In essence, she suddenly acquires a newfound awareness of her own experiencing.
Then, Paloma experiences a moment of beauty. As she and Kakuro Ozu pass through a courtyard, both of them solemn with grief at Madame Michel’s passing, they hear music drifting down from above. Paloma “stopped short… took a deep breath and let the sun warm [her face while she] listened to the music drifting down from above” and she felt that: “There’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty… It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never… Beauty, in this world.” (Barbery, 2006)
To explain why Paloma’s moment of beauty was transcendent, first we must consider how human beings are frequently obsessed with playing the heroes and heroines of our own lives, sometimes to the point of playing our own villains. We impose ourselves onto events and other people to try to fit them into our narratives, which we use to self-justify and to explain ourselves to other people. Recognition is important to us. We often have this deep-rooted fear that we will not exist unless we define ourselves, but these definitions do not seem to be authentic unless others acknowledge them. So, we attempt to paste certain labels onto ourselves to garner attention from others. In this way, rationalism (as justification of narratives and labels) is our long-valued method of proving to ourselves and others that we exist at all. Reason has suddenly gained the illusive quality of being necessary to exist. But whether it is the rationalists attaching existence to what is considered “objective” and “immortal” or the existentialists equating the self with subjectivity, the one thing that remains when all else is stripped away from us is a response to the same fear. The question of how the self might understand its being has long been motivated by the anxiety that our existence may not truly be an opportunity for narrative or significance. Thus, philosophy has a natural habit of referring the human being to things they consider visible and indispensable in the hopes that we, too, must be so.
However, when Paloma experiences the beauty of music, residing in one ephemeral but suspended moment, her newfound awareness allows for a shift in perspective. With her mind settled from a deeper understanding of life, the beauty of the music enters and shifts her perspective so that in that moment, she is no longer concerned with proving, justifying, or defining her own existence. In that moment, she is no longer obsessed with playing the hero. Paloma assumes the role of passerby, allowing and enjoying the music that is taking center stage in her experience. Thus, our encounter with a moment of beauty allows us to relinquish our need to prove our own existences without threatening our identities and we re-situate ourselves into the existence of a passerby or watcher without considering it a degradation or loss of self, but as the self taking a deep breath and for a moment, just settling into itself. To step away from the need to justify ourselves and re-affirm ourselves is to experience our own being as transcendent and our energy as nonrational (i.e. directionless and not aiming to be applied to anything). In more casual terms, you just are and you are enough to appreciate the moment for what it is. This is why Kant’s moral self is not the nonrational transcendental self. Kant’s moral self arises from a need to understand ourselves given how we appear to ourselves, but the nonrational transcendental self, which is what we are when we encounter moments of beauty or when we live alongside suicide, is not concerned with how we appear to ourselves.
Paloma describes the moment of beauty as a moment of “time suspension.” It is the “always within never.” This is interesting because time is one of the Kantian transcendental conditions. So, if we are in a realm of suspended time when we encounter a moment of beauty, then experiencing beauty is not a type of ‘knowing.’ Time and space are simultaneously extended and absorbed and the vanity of the self connected with these determinations fades away. To describe Paloma as “standing where the music is” is normally a confusion of terms that fails to define her, but it is the realm of the nonrational and transcendental, which is the same realm as the middle ground between the absence of a reason to live and a reason to die. Pure experience, which involves both existence and reason but is not confined by either, is an open realm where all things that ground us may shift with no threat to our existence.
Furthermore, if Paloma’s experience happens in time suspension, then we cannot expect it to happen or try to prolong it. With time suspension, possibility and actuality exist only insofar as they exist in each other. But without expectation, there can be no prescription. Thus, the nonrational transcendental self which appears in a moment of beauty differs from the Kantian subject making an aesthetic judgment in that the former is not considered with universal recommendations. The nonrational transcendental self is the middle ground devoid of the three cornerstones that inevitably create binaries: expectation, justification, and definition.
Another character in The Elegance of the Hedgehog is Jean Arthens, who is the son of the previous resident of Monsieur Ozu’s apartment. When we first encounter Jean Arthens, Renee describes him as “a drug addict, a sad wreck, … no more than a tortured body staggering through life on a razor’s edge” (Barbery, 2006). Through her encounter with him, Renee sadly recognizes that as human beings “we all must fall” at some point and that even before the fall, nobody quite knows “what [this war is that] we are waging, when defeat is so certain… Step by step we clear the path toward our mournful doom” (Barbery, 2006). But then, weeks later, Jean reappears as a far healthier person, somebody who, “once so very close to the abyss, has visibly opted for rebirth” (Barbery, 2006). Renee wonders at his transformation, asking herself, “How is one reborn after a fall?” (Barbery, 2006).
Jean tells Renee that what “practically saved his life” was none other than the “pretty little red and white flowers” that Renee had planted (Barbery, 2006). He explains that although “[he did not] know why”, he “used to think about those flowers all the time… and it did [him] good” (Barbery, 2006). Renee is amazed that a “camellia can change fate” (Barbery, 2006). Renee could not have reasonably known that Jean would have viewed her flowers in such a miraculous manner. Jean himself could not have reasonably anticipated his reaction. But the why was unimportant. The flowers were beautiful to him and in that moment of beauty, the nonrational transcendental self came forth.
After her encounter with Jean, Renee asks herself those unanswerable questions of life: “Did he see [the pathways of hell]? How is one reborn after a fall? What new pupils restore sight to scorched eyes? Where does war begin, where does combat end?” Her answer is: “Thus, a camellia” (Barbery, 2006). Renee’s answer does not make any rational sense. It is nonrational, and in a beautiful way, it is transcendental. Paloma’s music in the sunlight despite Madame Michel’s death and Jean Arthens’ camellias after a close shave with the abyss… For both Paloma and Jean, it was a moment of beauty that allowed them, not to somehow overcome their grief once and for all or even to be inspired to grit their teeth and endure, but to let go and excuse themselves from always having to save somebody else or save themselves. They no longer had to grapple with “why.” When the self sees its own transcendental non-rational being, it realizes that it is all things already.
I do not think that my reimagining of the self would escape Derrida’s wrath. As he rightly predicts, my attempt at explaining a nonrational transcendental self also succumbs to the same binary of worldly existence and reason that I critique in the first part of this thesis. In explaining why things are not some way, I find myself relying on the traits of that one way to explain my counterpoint. As Derrida points out, each new term we create in response to previous binaries is yet another appeasement for our constant need to commit violence against ourselves in the form of new justifications and differentiations, in service of so-called systematic thought.
However, I believe that there are still important takeaways from my proposition of a nonrational transcendental self. First, while the nonrational transcendental self can express the binary, it is not merely the binary. It is whatever was before the binary existed. The importance of this first point is that we can open our minds to the fact that the binary did not always exist and is therefore not a necessary or restraining metaphysical truth of philosophy. In fact, I think we can come to see that up until the very point prior to the existence-reason binary, either existence or reason could have theoretically functioned like nonrationality. This binary was an arbitrary creation, which took its meaning from the circumstances it arose from (in this case, the existentialist push-back against rationalism). It is a useful binary in that it gives us a language in which to express our thoughts about two important aspects of the human being, but the danger of its arbitrariness is that we may slip into confusing its applicability into a metaphysical and necessary truth. So long as we can understand things existing beyond the binary, we shift ever closer to creating a theory which speaks true to both our experience and knowledge and are better able to step away from the temptation of fitting experience into theory.
Likewise, the nonrational transcendental self, as revealed in its experience of a moment of beauty, challenges the strict distinction between the abstract and actual. Return for a moment to Kantian aesthetics. The Kantian subject of the aesthetic judgment is not identical with the nonrational transcendental self that experiences a moment of beauty for the former is defined by its capacities while the latter is unconcerned with its capacities and more engaged with the experience of beauty in that very moment. However, the Kantian notion of aesthetics is highly relevant because it illustrates the subject as able to merge abstraction and experience in the process of “freeplay.” This is significant because it illustrates that we do not have to sacrifice abstraction and conceptualization in order to experience actuality.
In their efforts to reject rationalism, the existentialists try to do away with abstraction and conceptualization. However, anti-conceptualization only reinvents, rather than resolves, fundamental tensions. We see this clearly in Kierkegaard’s inverse Hegelianism. Even on the everyday level, it is plain that abandoning the abstract does not lead to freedom. Taking away all methods of conceptualizing and imagining possibilities forces a person to submit to his circumstances. His existence, in becoming only ‘actual’, is no longer connected to what is possible.
In contrast, the experience of the nonrational transcendental self embraces abstraction so that a person’s subjectivity can extend beyond actuality into a more moving experience, where unrealized possibilities support the actuality of the present moment. The nonrational transcendental self is the grounds upon which object and subject experience each other as existentially inseparable (e.g. Paloma stands where the music is) as possibility and actuality shift into one another. When we experience the question of life and death (at every moment) or a moment of beauty, all conditions of an existing self are fulfilled without having to give a strict definition of its existence and capabilities. The nonrational transcendent self shows that the human being does not depend on rejecting rationality or proving its own subjectivity in order to exist as it is. Without asking for definition, the nonrational transcendental self appears to us in moments of life and beauty, demanding nothing of us except to pass through with an open mind. This is the aspect of the self that I believe became lost amidst the tensions of the existence-rationalism binary and is now reclaimed through the reimagining of the self.
19 The "hollowness of a hollow man" is in reference to T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men. (London: Oxford University Press, 1951).
20 This summary of Richard Brandt’s argument was quoted from: Christopher Cowley, “Suicide is Neither Rational nor Irrational” in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. Vol. 9, No.5 (2006): p. 495.
21 I realize that transcendence is a highly loaded term. However, I specifically chose a term with a lot of baggage from the existence-reason binary in order to show that the word can be used outside of the binary. The more obvious term that I might use is “reorientational” or “resituational”. But I used transcendence to show that transcendence and reaching that freedom of shifting a position do not arise only from turning deeper within yourself or by abstracting further and further away, but simply by settling into yourself, as you are.
22 Self-justification in this context is reminiscent of the Kantian subject of the moral judgment and explaining ourselves to others is similar to the ‘ought’ that the Kantian subject of the aesthetic judgment imposes onto others.
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