But the myth is in fact a myth. “Reality” is not fixed—it’s a phenomenon that arises in language. The world does not speak, only we do. Each moment’s meaning “occurs” against a background of understanding, and how the world “occurs” to us lives in language—it’s there that access to restoring our power lies. From there, we can reveal and dismantle old assumptions about the way things have been or the way we thought they had to be. Reality is declarative, interpretive, and actionable—we have dominion in the world of saying. Recognizing that shifts our relationship to the world. It doesn’t just lead to a different view, it gives us hands-on access to a world that’s malleable and open to being invented. It’s where transformation lives.
“Even if it were possible to cast my horoscope in this one life, and to make an accurate prediction about my future, it would not be possible to ‘show’ it to me because as soon as I saw it my future would change by definition. This is why Werner Heisenberg’s adaptation of the Hays Office—the so-called principle of uncertainty whereby the act of measuring something has the effect of altering the measurement—is of such importance. In my case the difference is often made by publicity. For example, and to boast of one of my few virtues, I used to derive pleasure from giving my time to bright young people who showed promise as writers and who asked for my help. Then some profile of me quoted someone who disclosed that I liked to do this. Then it became something widely said of me, whereupon it became almost impossible for me to go on doing it, because I started to receive far more requests than I could respond to, let alone satisfy. Perception modifies reality: when I abandoned the smoking habit of more than three decades I was given a supposedly helpful pill called Wellbutrin. But as soon as I discovered that this was the brand name for an antidepressant, I tossed the bottle away. There may be successful methods for overcoming the blues but for me they cannot include a capsule that says: ‘Fool yourself into happiness, while pretending not to do so.’ I should actually want my mind to be strong enough to circumvent such a trick.”
― Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir
From a Heideggerian perspective, the phrase, “the faculty of observing” has significant implications for meditative thinking/deconstruction. If as Cicero says, “Eloquence is wisdom spoken wisely,” then observation facilitates the rhetor to speak wisely so as to be able to persuade and stir up a disposition amidst the audience. Heidegger (1953/1996) alludes to this in his phenomenal work, Being and Time, when he writes, “Publicness as the kind of being of the they not only has its attunedness, it uses mood and ‘makes’ it for itself. The speaker speaks to it and from it. He needs the understanding of the possibility of mood in order to arouse and direct it in the right way” (138-139). Hence, to be persuasive a rhetor needs first of all to observe. It could then be said that “observation” is the condition upon which choosing the appropriate means of persuasion rests. But we may ask, “Is this not common sense?” It reminds us of the English proverb, “Look before you leap.” Yet what is to be borne in mind is that because the rational-scientific framework has permeated common sense so much, it cannot be taken for granted that observing or looking is merely a commonsensical activity. The technological and commercial Enframing of this epoch has such a powerful grip over every aspect of human life that common sense has lost its place as conventional wisdom. Besides, in trying to make human life comfortable and highly efficient, technology has succeeded in creating a desensitized human world. Looking or observing loses its passion in such a world that prioritizes distant, dispassionate and objective observation.
Hence, from a rationalistic and technological perspective, observation or looking is detached seeing. The goal of detached seeing is to arrive at certain knowledge and truth. The observer through detached seeing abstracts the essential qualities of a thing in the effort to understand and interpret it. This leads to clear and valid knowledge. But from an existential-phenomenological perspective, such an approach is impoverished. First of all, such a disengaged (detached seeing) activity robs a thing of its concreteness and its embodiment. Second, this process of abstraction/detached seeing (however convincing and certain it is) is oblivious to the context which makes the thing what it is. These two aspects make observation as detached seeing, in the rational-scientific system, a barren and passionless activity.
But observation in a radical sense is respect for the phenomena. In his essay, “The Thing,” Heidegger (1971b) points to this radical sense of observation which can be characterized as the “essence” of meditative thinking. He writes, “If we let the thing be present in this thinging from out of the worlding world, then we are thinking of the thing as thing” (p. 181). Observation as meditative thinking is radical because the rhetor lets the thing be thing in the way it shows itself — in its concreteness (“thinging”) and its situatedness (“worlding world”). But for the rhetor who affiliates with the rational-scientific tradition, an abstract, passionless and decontextualized observation has its payoffs. The persuasion that arises out of such an affiliation is commercially viable given the profit-oriented and competitive socio-cultural arena that every discipline (arts and sciences) has unwittingly bought into. Within such a structure, the skilful and persuasive speaker is one who possesses the skill to convince the listeners to concede to truth irrespective of its concreteness and situatedness. The monopoly over truth at which this approach arrives is gained through a process of elimination and exclusion such that the listeners are precluded from its multiple and genuine alternatives and possibilities. Through such exclusionary means the speaker and all those who subscribe to such a prescriptive approach to truth thereby become the sole owners of the truth by means of expropriation and exploitation. On the other hand, a rhetor (the one who observes with a passion) enables/facilitates/shows how we live and move in truth through inclusive and non-reductionistic ways. This is truly pedagogical and educative for it persuades by “bringing forth”; not because the speaker has a monopoly over truth, but because the listeners live and share in it already. The work of the rhetor is to awaken them to what they already know. It is in this context that epideictic rhetoric is important. We have no new information introduced; rather, the quality of the phenomena is amplified.
From a Heideggerian perspective, observing takes on a different meaning as it is based on a radically different assumption. As Hoy (1993) writing on the hermeneutic turn in Heidegger points out:
Heidegger’s strategy is different from the Cartesian strategy, which starts by assuming a basic ontological disconnection (e.g., between mental and physical substance) and then looks for instances of epistemological connection that cannot be doubted (e.g., the knowledge of the existence of a thinking subject). Heidegger’s strategy is to see Dasein as already in the world, which suggests that what needs to be explained is not the connection, which is the basis, but the disconnection.
The disconnection or the disruption is that which is appealing to the eye of the rhetor who observes by participating. Hence, observation as meditative thinking is to pay attention to the “disconnection” that shows itself in the activity of hovering over as long as we can endure it. To take this a step further, we could say that when the rhetor can endure or stay persistent with this unsettling experience, then the circularity of hermeneutics (through a persistent inhabitation of the phenomenon) gives way to an elliptical movement that is in “essence” elusive and indeterminate.
Derrida (1973) calls our attention to this radical difference in what can be called a “project” of deconstruction. He makes an appropriate observation in this regard when he writes:
There is then, probably no choice to be made between two lines of thought; our task is rather to reflect on the circularity, which makes the one pass into the other indefinitely. And, by strictly repeating this circle in its own historical possibility, we allow the production of some elliptical change of site, within the difference involved in repetition; this displacement is no doubt deficient, but with a deficiency that is not yet, or is already no longer, absence, negativity, nonbeing, lack, silence. Neither matter nor form, it is nothing that any philosopheme, that is, any dialectic, however determinate, can capture. It is an ellipsis of both meaning and form; it is neither plenary speech nor perfectly circular. More and less, neither more nor less — it is perhaps an entirely different question.
On the part of the rhetor who endures, the latter movement allows for a “re-cognition” of this elusive and disruptive/displacing nature of that which shows itself. In this sense, observation as meditative thinking/deconstruction is respect for the phenomena. In such a movement, we could contend with John D. Caputo (1987) that the observer-participant rhetor is never in a privileged position or the sole owner in regard to what shows itself in meditative thinking/deconstruction. He observes:
In an a-lethic view, whatever shows itself, whatever comes forth, issues from hidden depths. We know we cannot touch bottom here, that we cannot squeeze what stirs here between our conceptual hands, cannot get it within our grip, cannot seize it round about. The mystery is self-withdrawing, self-sheltering. And that is what gives rise to respect.
Hence, in Heideggerian terms, observation could be seen as akin to letting go or “letting be,” which is radical detachment or detached attachment. The genuine rhetor is one who cultivates a respectful disposition as regards the “faculty of observing” and “the available means of persuasion” vis-à-vis that which needs to be spoken about.
Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do.
~ Jean-Paul Sartre
My son recently entered college, so I’ve thought often lately about my own undergraduate days at the University of California at Santa Cruz and what remains of them in my world view. If I had to pick just one thing I took away from those four years it would be existentialism.
The word “existentialism” is much misused and for many people calls to mind gloomy film noirs, smoky cafes on the Boulevard St. Germain and impenetrable texts, but at its heart is a really simple precept. We are born free; we make our own choices; and we are responsible. Or as Jean-Paul Sartre, who created the term, put it: Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.
Sartre also coined the slogan “existence precedes essence,” which contains the core of the philosophy in just those three words. No generic account of what it means to be human can be given, since that meaning is decided in and through existing itself. In contrast to other entities, whose essential properties are fixed by the kind of entities they are, what is essential to a human being—what makes you who you are—is not fixed by your type but by what you make of yourself, what you become.
The relevance to free agency is clear. Outside organizational life, you are on your own, the possibilities are unlimited, and you are responsible for your own successful outcomes based on the choices you make and the actions you take. Whether you find that prospect liberating or terrifying says a great deal about your fitness for the freelance life.
I can’t claim any degree of existential scholarship, and to be honest, when I picked up Sartre’s seminal work Being and Nothingness for the first time in 30 years, I found it pretty tough sledding. Fortunately, people more clever than I have reduced his knotty prose to an actionable rationale. Jay Ogilvy, a co-founder of the Global Business Network, devised this list:
Five Principles of Existential Strategy
1. Finitude. You can’t be all things to all people. If you’re not saying “no” to some possibilities, then you’re not acting strategically.
2. Being-Toward-Death. No one is too big to fail, to die, to go bankrupt. Gliding on momentum can lead to a crash.
3. Care. Define your interests more precisely than ROI or return to shareholders. If you don’t know where you stand, you’ll fall for anything.
4. Thrownness. You have a past; you have experiences and core competencies. Know them, use them, and don’t forget them.
5. Authenticity. Don’t be bound by your past. Feel free to reinvent yourself and your company for an uncertain future.
Ogilvy created the list for companies, so let me offer a little tweaking for solo practitioners. Finitude is the core concept because it is all about making the tough choices between multiple possibilities. The first temptation free agents face is to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes their way. We do this because we worry about passing up the revenue, but also because we don’t want to miss out on something cool. But you can’t do everything, you have to choose.
Being-toward-death sounds dreadful, but it’s really about understanding that since we are not immortal, we have to make choices and act upon them–right here, right now. As Ogilvy puts it, by acknowledging the finite number of them you’re granted, each day of your life gains both preciousness and a sense of existential urgency. Don’t dawdle, and don’t waste time on jobs that don’t engage you on some meaningful level.
Martin Heidegger, whose book Being and Time is considered by some to be the culminating work of existential philosophy, focused on care as a feature that differentiates human beings from purely cognitive, Cartesian creatures. Ogilvy defines it as the understanding of what you’re good for, but also what you desire, what you care about, what gives meaning to your life. Successful free agency often means reinventing yourself over and over again, and care provides a grounding that can save you from losing track of who you are and why you went down this path in the first place.
Thrownness is the characteristic that connects you to your past and defines its place in your present. We all started somewhere other than where we are now and it’s best to use that history rather than to try to escape it. Much of what I do these days has nothing to do with daily journalism, but I’m always using the basic toolkit I acquired through reporting: getting people to open up; taking careful notes, rapid analysis and synthesis. I can reinvent myself as a strategy consultant and use all of these competencies; I cannot reinvent myself in a role that requires an entirely different set of skills.
I like Ogilvy’s definition of authenticity so much that I’ll just paste it here: Authenticity is a way of being true to yourself, but the concept is tricky because, for the existentialist, being true to yourself can’t be defined as being true to your essence. Nor can it be reduced to fulfilling a function. Authenticity demands fidelity to your past, but also openness to possibilities in the future — not just one possibility (that would be a necessity), but several possibilities. Authenticity is being true to both your thrownness and your freedom. It’s making choices among possibilities and taking responsibility for your decisions.
One’s decisions and actions have consequences in organizational life, but they are often blunted or hidden by structural constraints. The free agent is always going beyond what simply is toward what can be: the factual always emerges in light of the possible, where the possible is not a function of anonymous forces but a function of your choices and decisions. You are free and you are responsible. Get used to it.
[Note: I found a great layperson’s review of existentialism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ]
Even with little work to do in modern times, today’s verb retains an immortality for its appearance in Samuel Johnson’s definition of network: “Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.” The definition of the reticulate is a challenge without circularity: the idea of network lurks in all senses of the word.
Imagination is one of the more mysterious capabilities of the human mind. How is it possible to conjure up images, feelings, or concepts that we can’t perceive through our senses? How can we arrive at perfectly workable solutions without the benefit of logical thought? Is imagination learnable, or is it only the preserve of eccentric artists and mad scientists?
This is merely one variety of Cognitive Bias, a large category of logical pitfalls that play havoc with our intuition. Other traps include negativity bias, in which bad is perceived to be stronger than good; perceptual defense, which causes us to ignore inconvenient facts; hindsight bias, the illusion that we knew it all along; the gamblers fallacy, or believing in “streaks” or in “being due” when no such possibilities exit; the anchoring effect, causing us to weigh a single piece of evidence far too heavily; belief bias, in which we evaluate an argument based on the believability of its conclusion; and the availability heuristic, which causes us to estimate the likelihood of something according to what is more available in memory, favoring events that are vivid or emotionally charged.
Confirmation bias is not always self-inflicted, since its built into the fabric of culture. Anthropologist Bloomer describes culture as a seamless web of beliefs, all working together so they seem natural, universal, even unquestionable.