Overcoming material scarcity: On Stoterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the fifth set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). The first set of reflections can be read here. A summary of Stoterdijk’s principal theses is available here.

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If, as Stoterdijk insists, human beings are first and foremost practicing animals and if some practicing animals take human flourishing as their ultimate aim, then how do these practitioners go about becoming excellent in the art of living? In Chapter 12, ‘Exercises and Misexercises,’ Stoterdijk suggests that there are five main fronts upon which they have fought. These are ‘material scarcity, the burden character of existence, sexual drive, alienation and the involuntary nature of death’ (416). Today, I examine material scarcity.

Material scarcity has to do with needs: with the ways in which we are connected to, as well as dependent upon, some goods beyond us in order to maintain our existence.So food and water do not ‘come from  us’ or ‘reside within us’; they must be sought after, collected, and taken in again and again in order for us to persist in our human existence. These needs include having adequate food, water, shelter, warmth when it is cold, and coolness when it too warm. The assumption is that human beings qua human beings cannot get beyond their needs so long as they wish to persist in finitude. Can this assumption be challenged or loosened? Can we be freed, if not from the fact of eating, then from its pressingness, its urgency, its franticness?

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‘If the world is not fallen, then it is not in need of saving…’

Here is an excerpt from a post-philosophical conversation note I wrote to one philosophical friend today.

All of the assumptions below are typically made. My tacit suggestion is that they amount to what Gilbert Ryle famously terms ‘category mistakes.’ Of course, some things are problems; but, logically speaking, a human life cannot be a problem. It is neither a problem nor a pseudo-problem nor a non-problem. Etc.

The implication is that one has to let go of all these assumptions (e.g., that human beings are broken) before one can come to greater understanding of oneself and the world in which we live.

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See whether you would go along with these unorthodox theses?  

1.) If the world is not fallen or lost, then it is not in need of saving.  

(Compare: a Christian believes that human beings are fallen beings as a result of Original Sin; thus, they are in need of saving. This is where Christ comes in. But our world may not fit the Christian description. If it does not fit this description, then it is not clear why people think that it needs to be–or that it could be–saved.)

2.) If human beings are not inherently weak and full of needs, then they are not necessarily in need of [my, our] help.  

(Compare: a baby has some needs (though not a lot of needs) and is physically weak (i.e., dependent on another to secure these needs). So, it will need helping, e.g., being fed, etc. But a mature human being isn’t like a baby. A mature human being is strong and has few needs. In the spirit of wu wei, he may do well to let him come around to sorting things out.)

3.) If human life is not a problem, then it does not call for a solution.  

(Compare: a math assignment consists of a set of problems. All of these require individual solutions. A conundrum is a kind of problem. But a human life isn’t like a math problem, and it isn’t, writ large, a conundrum. )

4.) If the mind is not numerically identical with the brain and if the mind cannot be ill (though the brain can indeed be sick), then the mind does not need healing or curing.  

(Compare: an older man may be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But the fact that a man is grieving over the loss of his wife doesn’t make him ill; it means that he is in the midst of bereavement. [And bereavement is neither 'sick' nor 'healthy.']

(A human life is not the sort of thing that can be ‘ill’ or ‘healthy.’)

5.) If a human being cannot be broken, then he is not in need of fixing.  

(Compare: a car can be broken; thus, it can be fixed. But a human being is not like a car. So, there is no way in which it could possibly be fixed.)

6.) If a human life cannot be dis [hyphen] ordered (though Daoists believe that a mind can be out-of-order), then it does not beg to be restored to some prior state.  

(Compare: after a storm, a house may be out of order, things having fallen this way or that, broken off, etc. Thus, the house may need to be restored to some prior state. But a human life is not in this sense like a house: it does not call to be restored to a prior state. If Smith is longing, e.g., it could be that he is longing for a higher way of being. Hence, he has no interest in being restored to a way of life that couldn’t possibly overcome (say) the challenge posed by nihilism.)

The main theses of Stoterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the fourth set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). The first set of reflections can be read here.

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Let us review what we know about Stoterdijk’s basic philosophical orientation.

1.) Human beings are first and foremost practicing animals. Most practice what they do implicitly: even an ignoramus, Stoterdijk contends, has to ‘work hard’ to continue to be ignorant. (Imagine him continuing to get a math problem wrong and continuing to work on it in this wrongheaded fashion.) Meanwhile, the few and the rare are immersed in explicit training programs aimed at radically changing their lives.

2.) Stoterdijk’s most elementary question is, ‘How does one become extraordinary?’ The other way of articulating the question is, ‘How is it possible for a human being to uproot himself from his poor habits?’

3.) Stoterdijk is an elitist in the sense that he insists that some human beings dare to be extraordinary while most do not. He is not so much concerned with what impediments stand in the way of virtuosity as he is to analyze the project of extraordinary human beings.

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Conversion and elitism: A propaedeutic to reading Stoterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the third set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). In the post below, I am tacking back, by way of Charles Taylor’s work, in order to understand how Stoterdijk arrived at his version of neo-Nietzschean elitism.

The first set of reflections can be read here.

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Before one comes to the question, ‘How is conversion possible?’ one must confront the genuine challenge that modernity has a truck with the very idea of conversion. One place where the refusal of conversion is in great evidence is in the realm of the therapeutic. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor discusses the triumph of the therapeutic in terms of two basic claims. I cite him at length:

The modern therapeutic perspective develops partly out of the Enlightenment (in inspiration, Lockean) idea that the human agent is malleable; on the basis of certain fundamental motivations (e.g., seeking pleasure, avoiding pain), the agent can be trained to identify his ends in a variety of different ways. To redefine these ends through re-education thus does not force him to abandon an intrinsic direction of his being; and if it ends up making him better able to adjust to everyone else, it can lead to greater harmony, greater general desire-fulfillment, and thus a gain all around.

The other source of the triumph of the therapeutic is the desire to do away with the category of sin, which attributes at some level an ill will to the sinner. The deviant is a victim of bad training or illness; he is not there as an agent endorsing his lamentable, destructive behaviour, someone we should therefore condemn; rather he is caught in a cycle of compulsion, from which we can liberate him through therapy. (633, my emphasis)

Taylor’s argument against the therapeutic dispensation turns on the assumption that there is a loss of transcendence. Under this regime of thought, there are only ordinary goods to be pursued and secured, with greater or lesser a degree of success. If transcendence is impossible, then one might subscribe to a materialist view according to which human beings are malleable (what changes is only the already-existing) and exculpable (since one’s conduct, already reduced considerably to behavior, is not up to one). It seems that the patient or client is, at bottom, merely a being who suffers and so is in need of help or amelioration of his condition.

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‘All education is conversion’: Reflections on Stoterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the second set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). The first set can be read here.

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In his provocative book You Must Change Your Life, Peter Sloterdijk advances the thesis that human beings are inexplicitly or explicitly training animals. His principal question therefore is, ‘Can human beings overcome bad habits [those they inherit in the course of ordinary life] and, if so, how?’ If one could overcome one’s poor habits along with one’s unclear notions and excessive affects, then one would be engaged in an explicit practice program whose point is to discover as well as tighten the ‘vertical tension’ which pulls the practitioner toward an idea of the higher.

The beginning of an answer can be found in Chapter 9, ‘Change of Trainer and Revolution.’ With reverence does Stoterdijk cite Pierre Hadot’s elegant aphorism: ‘All education is conversion.’ Clearly distinguishing conversion in the genuine sense from counterfeit conversion is the first exercise in thought. The contrast Stoterdijk goes on to draw is that between periagoge and metanoia. Whereas periagoge is a fundamental act of turning, metanoia purports to turn yet only elongates what was prepared for being the case. Concerning periagoge, he writes,

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