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Distinguishing What IS, from what Should Be

May 31, 2013

Hume, Ought from IS

People underestimate how easy it is to confuse what we think should be the case, from what actually is the case. The reason is that we all, as we grow into adulthood, and become more fixed in our perception of the world, have expectations of what should be the case, of what should happen, and the tendency is to read this into things. Even in apparently basic areas, where you would imagine there is little room for deception, such as describing our own conscious experience.

The tendency of much philosophy over the centuries has been to read rationality into conscious experience even where it is absent. Generally because this is what they believe it SHOULD be in ideal circumstances, rather than because this is what it actually IS most of the time. The enlightenment was the high-point of this approach of rationalization. And in philosophy a key exponent of it was Kant with his transcendental subjectivity. Now Kant here was claiming to describe something universal in our conscious experience, but time has shown that what he was really doing was prescribing what conscious experience should be in ideal circumstances. The categorical imperative of Kant being another example of this. There may be nothing wrong in suggesting that philosophy prescribe truths rather than just describe them. In fact I believe future philosophy has to acknowledge this aspect of its inquiries. But it must not be imagined, assumed, or suggested that it is only describing things.

Nietzsche was one who exposed these false rational systems of philosophy, that imagined they were merely describing our conscious experience. He showed how our actual conscious experience was much more driven by irrational things such as the will to power, and a craving to find meaning in a meaningless world. In the twilight of the idols he gives a great critical analysis of some of the errors of past philosophy where it has confused what IS and what Should BE.

For me personally, the realization has come from a recent re-reading of some of the works of Husserl. He is an important figure. The founder of Phenomenology, he created the concept of the life-world, adopted by later thinkers such as Heidegger and Habermas. And he was a staunch defender of appreciating the connection between our lived experience and our scientific understanding and knowledge of the world. So he was by no means guilty of some of the errors of the German Rationalists and Idealists in the 19th Century, whom Nietzsche was so critical of. But, nevertheless, he does hang on to a notion of the transcendent, and to an interpretation of our conscious experience that seems to be too much biased towards the rational elements. It was from here that later phenomenologists diverged from Husserl, appreciating more some of the irrational elements in our conscious experience. Merleau-Ponty illustrated our physical embodiment as essential to our consciousness and to how we perceive the world. A check on the universal, rational and transcendental subject of Husserl. Heidegger pointed out that the striving for meaning was not rationally motivated, by some innate intentionality to consciousness, but existentially motivated by the realization of our mortality, and our anxiety in the face of the knowledge of personal death to find meaning in life.

So, given this divergence, the question then is how far from the purely rational we can take our phenomenological analyses before we are no longer within the domain of philosophy? Philosophy, it seems, requires a rational faculty as its basis. For Kant and Husserl this was easy to secure with their notion of transcendental subjectivity. But, without this basis, what standards of truth can we appeal to that are universal, and that are not context dependent?

Context dependency clearly brings in an unphilosophical bias. Maybe we need to redefine philosophy or rationality. Rather than appealing to an ideal of impartiality. Maybe the lesson from phenomenology is that we appeal to an existential ideal of authenticity?

These are some ideas for future discussion, but the central point here to remember is that just because we like to think we are rational in our actions and in our consciousness, particularly when we describe it. This does not mean that what we LIKE to think, is what we in fact ACTUALLY think most of the time. The realm of what is and what should be are interminably intermingled. So when David Hume some time ago claimed you cannot get an ought from an is, what I find most extraordinary about this claim is that he managed to find, and isolate, an IS in the first place. My suggestion, the suggestion of Nietzsche, Phenomenology, is that he may LIKE to think he found an IS, and we all often LIKE to think this. But LIKING to think is not the same as what is actually thought.

  1. Spot on with this write-up, I honestly believe that this amazing site needs a
    great deal more attention. I’ll probably be returning to see more, thanks for the information!

  2. Hello there! This blog post could not be written aany better!
    Reading through this post reminds me off my previous
    roommate!He constantly kept preaching aout this. I am going
    to send this article to him. Pretty sure he’s going to have a great read.
    I appreciate you for sharing!

    • Thanks, I am reading back over this article and having to re-appreciate it myself. Philosophy can be such a deep subject with so many implications at times.

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