How a hedonist says goodbye to hedonism

This reflection, springing from this morning’s philosophical conversation, is an attempt to iron out the transition out of hedonism. Because the transition was not as clear as I would have liked, I seek to clarify it in the following.


We want to begin not with a theory of hedonism but with a phenomenology of hedonism. How does someone today live a hedonistic life? What is it like, and what would he say he is after? He says that he wants to maximally stimulate the senses and to avoid non-stimulating experiences. For a time, he succeeds. He is offered the blue pill and he takes it without thinking. He is offered sex, accepts, and it is pleasant. He throws himself into game play, into entertainments and diversions with a sense of abandon and has no regrets afterward.

After a time, however, he begins to notice that there are conflicts and clashes that arise later on. His stimulating experiences are followed by non-stimulating experiences and, moreover, there is a clash between the stimulating experiences and (say) being productive at work. Drinking was pleasant, but the day spent hungover got him into trouble. And that was unpleasant. So, he senses strife: he wants to continue to hold onto a hedonic life, but he is feeling the rub of the costs.

What is he to do?

He turns himself into a sophisticated hedonist. Unlike the naive hedonist, this figure uses instrumental rationality to set ends, calculate costs, anticipate various outcomes, and plan things so that the pleasure he secures has a lower probability of being followed by pains and conflicts afterward. To a degree, this strategy of retaining hedonism also works for a time: the calculations are well-thought-out, and things pay off.

The rub, however, is that the sophisticated, calculating hedonist begins observing something odd. This ‘something odd’ is that he doesn’t find the experience–the one he has assiduously planned for–all that pleasant. It should be pleasant, he thinks, but not only has he come to realize that there are higher stakes involved (work responsibilities, for instance) but also he finds his mind continuing to wander toward the future. And he discovers that he spent all this work, only to have something that is (he admits) only subpar. He seems unable to take this experience for what it is, to enjoy it while it is here. He is bewildered by three facts: first, by the fact that solving a puzzle concerning how to make the experience possible was more pleasurable than the experience itself; second, by the fact that the experience was not worth the effort; and, third, by the fact that he cannot grasp what this experience is for. Somehow or other, the scheming takes precedence over the experiencing, and the experiencing falls into the background.

The transition out of hedonism, by way of its more sophisticated form, is now becoming clear. First, he has (beyond his back, so to speak) begun to appreciate two higher goods: that of exercising his autonomy (setting ends and guiding his life in a more prudent fashion) and that of taking care of himself (seeing to it that he has everything he needs in case X or Y should happen; more generally, seeing about his well-being and possibly the well-being of those around him). His pleasures, then, are pleasures taken not in the immediate satisfaction of the appetites but in these higher goods concerned with autonomy and care for oneself and others. Thus, he is beginning to pass beyond hedonism once he starts to be introduced to higher goods which he is, albeit unwittingly, guided his life by.

Second, his bewilderment concerning the aim of any sensuous activity leads him to think that calculating may be utterly pointless unless the activity itself has a point. But to ask about the point of an activity is to ask a non-hedonic question worthy of philosophy. Well, what is sex for? Sex reaches its higher aim in love. And what are drugs for? Drugs reach their higher aim in ‘religion’ (an experience of transcendence). What is fantasy for? Fantasy is really aiming at art, the shaping of images into something coherent. So then all of these lower forms turn out to be aiming, unbeknownst to themselves, at higher goods. Their point is, so to speak, to point beyond themselves and thus beyond hedonism.

And so, to believe (in the sense of living-out) that there are higher goods such as autonomy, self-care, love, communion, and art is to no longer be able to live hedonically. One simply can’t do it anymore, not in these terms. Hedonism has become impossible. Instead, one would have to live in the light of these higher goods and that light would afford one joy in the company of friends, lightness in the play of love, calm in the unfolding of a philosophical conversation, and the like. Introduced to what is higher and becoming drawn to these, calling to them, invoking them, one can no longer recognize oneself as a hedonist. He probably won’t realize this until after the fact, but he has already said his goodbye…

Philosophizing’s folding back on itself

This meditation is inspired by a philosophical conversation that took place earlier this morning.


As living discourse between philosophical guide and philosophical friend, philosophizing ‘folds back’ on itself. If, unlike sages and gurus, philosophers never come with answers in hand, then they must inquire in order to understand. Then, how would the inquiry have to look in order to for them to be answerable both to the idea of the not coming with answers in hand and to that of coming to such answers? What would such a philosophical relationship have to look like in order to exemplify not approaching in the fashion of hubris?

A question would be posed, an initial answer given. (Or it wouldn’t be supplied because it would be beyond one’s powers, as of yet, of understanding.) This initial answer would be considered, examined; it would only be provisional, also about as puzzling as the question itself. Like a pleat, the inquiry would unfold as well as fold back on itself. For it is only by answering a question provisionally, then coming back to that answer, then examining it, then revising it, then moving away from it, then returning to it… that we learn not only that we have not had answers in hand but also that we are fine-tuning ourselves.

And how have we been all along? We have been bewildered (perhaps because this question seems necessary yet impossible to answer), we were receptive to changing our views (and, by implication, ourselves), and we were honest in our determination concerning where we stood and what we now grasped. Looping back again, asking that question again (the third time? the fourth? the fifth in a different formula?), we managed to come to a better answer than the one we began with. Far from impossible to answer, the question yields to tenderness.

Afterward, we may revise the answers we gave, live out the answers so revised, return bewildered by new questions only now disclosed by the answers lived out and unfinished. So, we inquire again but from a better place, knowing still that the answers do not come in hand but rather come to us from the dialogical unfolding, knowing also that these answers may be contorted and in need of some unfolding, some bending and unbending with bending life. Looping back in order to become clearer, we proceed in view of this redress, this better turn.

In the beginning was this turning. How, therefore, shall we turn out to be? (We do not know yet.)

Philosophical portraiture: The common ear

The screen shot included below is an example of philosophical portraiture by Aleksandra Marcella Lauro. Philosophical portraiture is concerned with the project of self-cultivation–specifically, with how one comes into contact with what is higher. Here, the figure on the viewer’s left is wholesome, earnest, yet naive in the ways of the world. The figure on the viewer’s right is more world-weary, more worldly, less unwise. The common ear shows the way that one can become the other. Listen. The figure who is looking at us is gently holding us to account for our lives. Aleksandra suggests that I am on the humble path which leads from the first figure, who I am no longer, to the second, the man I would like to be.

The portrait can be viewed in full-scale here.

Philosophical Portrait screen shot

Why do those who care about others so rarely care for themselves?

Here is the puzzle: I have philosophical conversations with those who work in the caring professions, with social entrepreneurs, with lawyers concerned with social justice, and with those who devote their lives to noble causes. These people care quite a lot for others, and many of them are universalists who believe that everyone should be cared for. Yet they are not very good at taking care of themselves. The contradiction is clear: everyone ought to be cared for except that I do not take care of myself. Worse, when they do take care of themselves, then they feel guilty about it. So, either they care for others all of the time and are exhausted, or they care for themselves some of the time and feel guilty.

There are many reasons why this could be the case (such as fear, self-loathing, existential loneliness, a sense of penitence, etc.), but one I would like to underscore in this post is a mistake having to do with the springs of motivation. The implicit premise is that caring for myself is identical with solipsism. And solipsism is something one ought to feel guilty about when it is the case that one succumbs to it. But this view can’t be right. And what also can’t be right is the other implicit claim that caring for others is identical, of necessity, with altruism.

There is not enough space in this post to analyze our various conceptions of selfhood. Let one thought suffice for the time being: if I take time to eat simply, to think clearly, to exercise deliberately, to inquire of myself, to see to my material needs, to rest gently, and so forth, then I am involved in the philosophical project of self-cultivation. But self-cultivation is not identical with solipsism, which is concerned (variously) with vanity, pride, greed, status, the acquisition of wealth, power, and so on.

So, it is possible to care for others in the ways that my conversation partners and philosophical friends do and, in many cases, do well while also taking time to care for their souls in but some of the ways outlined above.

Emily Dickinson on being in pain

In ‘Pain Has an Element of Blank,’ the poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) seeks to bring into sharper focus the unique quality of being in extraordinary pain. That quality is expressed in a particular experience of time. She writes,

PAIN has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

In ordinary life, we live through a succession of beginnings and endings. The day begins, the week ends. We’re hungry, we eat, we grow full. The bush shivers in the breeze and then is still. The duration of each lived experience is definite, finite, to some degree sharp.

Our ordinary experience of pain also follows this normal pattern of beginning and ending. We speak of ‘twinges’ of pain, of ‘throbbing’ pains, of dull aches, of ‘pulsating’ headaches. Our stiff joints have loosened up by midday, our dry eyes having cleared up by morning. So does ordinary pain come and go, at once passing into the past and projecting us onto a painless future.

In contrast, extraordinary pain belies this rhythm of time, carrying us into an entirely different temporality. Our expectation that pain will go away is soon called into doubt. This is the first shock of horror. In time, we forget what it was like when we were not in pain. The common phrase, ‘living with pain,’ becomes doubly significant. Here is perhaps our first, most poignant introduction to infinity: that which is completely unto itself and without any other. God, for instance, is a being entirely unto himself who is not dependent for his existence on another. But pain also? Pain also infinite? Yes, for a time that is ‘internal’ to extraordinary pain, there is only utter envelopment, an experience of myself-in-relation-to-this, being only inasmuch as being-in-pain.

The being in extraordinary pain can lose, apart from memory of what was otherwise, certain common points of reference: what other lives are like, how the world could be imagined and refashioned, what questions occur to one when one is merely daydreaming or set adrift. The confrontation with the this–its insistence, its utter immediacy, its sheer ever-presentness–is like a hovering beckoning, like a single, continuous fold. Pain, paradoxically, flashes up in urgency yet without diminishing unduly.

Extraordinary pain for the one so in pain is experienced as blacking out with blanks. It is in this sense that pain throws one into darkness-without-light.