Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Is the Cynical Intellectual a Parasite?

Have you ever startled yourself while driving a car, snapping out of your second-nature skill as you realize you’re sitting in a hunk of metal, hurtling down a stretch of asphalt, surrounded by other speeding blocks of metal? To say that driving becomes second nature is to say that you can suppress those doubts and unite mentally with the car—just as a practiced horseback rider must feel while straddling the horse. The more familiar we are with something, the lower we drop our guard until we identify with the thing. At first while wearing braces, the metal on your teeth feels strange, but eventually you get used to it and the braces feel like part of your teeth.

It’s the same with language: from an early age we learn how to speak so that when we hear or read sentences we don’t regard the letters as peculiar sounds or squiggles, but identify them immediately as carriers of meaning. But every now and then, we might snap out of that familiarity, forget for a moment the word’s conventional meaning, and marvel at the letters’ strangeness. In short, we can exit the pragmatic mode and look at our tools objectively from outside the standard use. Assuming we can adopt the aesthetic stance in interpreting anything at all, including our bodies, family members, and nature in general, we’re only ever a moment’s abstraction away from an encounter with the uncanny.

With respect to the standard use of language, we transmit meanings bound up in our mind and we do so by suspending our disbelief in the inherent strangeness of linguistic communication. Again, from the aesthetic perspective, which is just the anti-perspective of objectivity that ignores technoscience’s instrumental motives, everything will seem strange, because to adopt that lack of perspective we must treat ourselves as the insignificant nothings we are from the universe’s vantage point. We must become inhuman to perceive the world as it really is, without the input of our personal and social interests. The real world at large is, of course, inhuman since human interests are incidental byproducts that don’t agree or harmonize with reality. Life in general will mean nothing when universal processes extinguish all living things on this planet eons from now, as the universe evolves for no reason, and so life presently only seems superficially to have a purpose from our subjective standpoints. We can set aside those standpoints and glimpse the noumenal essence of anything by attending to its mere aesthetic characteristics. What we can call, then, the “enlightened” treatment of language would amount to the standard use together with an act of mental negation, an unsaying of what’s said as we’re humiliated by the deeper pointlessness of speaking.

The long-term act of living a life likewise has conventional and enlightened modes. Exoterically, we’re supposed to be confident in ourselves so that the day-to-day acts of living become second-nature. We engage in our daily routines, eschewing any meta-perspective or philosophical questions as being counterproductive and depressing. By contrast, an elevated, transhuman outlook would call for just such doubts. When we understand that we’re all ridiculous in the big picture, that even our knowing, rebellious acts are small-minded and futile, we ought to lose some confidence in our abilities and trained reactions. As with the shell of language, the justification of our automated, civilized self can seem self-evident, because when we identify with our personality and with our socially-acceptable behaviours, our mind operates on autopilot to get the job done. The enlightened self, then, is a layer of mental activity that judges the encultured self and even the person’s character which has accrued from countless minor performances. This liberated self loses confidence in the artificial construct of the persona, as she beholds the strangeness of her behavioural patterns in their aesthetic dimension. Indeed, the “twilight zone” from pop culture seems like just how the world would be were we to misplace our familiar perceptual and cognitive filters and witness the world as so much indifferent art.  

Undoing ourselves would require the comparable recognition that, like the act of uttering a statement, we too are performance-art pieces, because our personal habits and bodies are objectively strange. Needless to say, undoing a self in the edifying sense has nothing to do with murder or suicide. Homicide disposes of a person without the existential benefit of learning the existential lesson. To undo yourself in the relevant sense would be to step out of your comfort zone, to recognize that what matters—if anything—to the universe, as it were, is only ever your impersonal aesthetic qualities. Once undone and humiliated in the cold glare of objectivity, we’re outsiders; we’re here but not here. We have that out-of-body experience of noticing that our typical responses are necessarily preposterous. We are bizarre, as is everything else in the universe when juxtaposed with how we’d prefer to imagine it, because the cognitive and social filters that make the world seem normal are self-serving tools, the deployment of which is optional. Once we opt out of conventional life, even if we do so only briefly, now and again between the staged performances of ourselves, we stand as those existential anti-heroes, as those rebels without a cause, those strangers in a strange land.

Social Outsiders as Parasites

In The Tragic Sense of Life, published in 1912 by the Spanish author Miguel de Unamuno, he writes offhandedly that such forlorn, existential outsiders are “parasites.” To quote him at length:
These parasites receive from the society in which they live the basis for a moral conduct and they go on to deny that a belief in God and a future life are a necessary foundation on which to base a permissible life and good conduct—but society has already prepared for them the spiritual nutriment upon which they feed. A single individual can endure life and live it well and even heroically without any belief at all in either God or the immortality of the soul; nevertheless, he will be living the life of a spiritual parasite.
Unamuno goes as far as to speculate that, “Human society, qua such a society, boasts senses which the individual, but for the existence of that society, would lack, just as the individual man—who is in his turn a kind of society—boasts senses which are lacking in the cells of which he is composed.” Thus does Unamuno justify religious and moral traditions that benefit society, which traditions the antisocial members of society would be foolish to question. More specifically, for Unamuno,
The instinct for self-preservation—hunger—is fundamental to the individual human being; the instinct for perpetuation—love—in its most rudimentary, physiological form—is fundamental to human society. And just as man knows what he needs to know in order to continue living, so society, or man to the degree that he is a social being, knows what is needful to know in order to perpetuate man in society.
Unamuno grants that this comparison between social and individual senses and instincts is only a fanciful analogy, but he urges his readers to take seriously the products of social imagination: “The fact is that the social sense, offspring of love, creator of language and reason and of the ideal world which springs from this sense, is basically no more than what we call fantasy or imagination.” Yet according to Unamuno, the imagination “reveals God and the immortality of the soul to us, so that God is a social product.”

I would go further in one sense, since those whom society would deem parasites should include not just the enlightened outsiders, those who strip bare their persona (in their imagination), as required by an understanding of ontological absurdity, but society’s greatest leaders and winners whose power over others renders them more or less psychopathic and therefore likewise antisocial. Winners and losers, alphas and omegas, the strong and the weak are both opposed to society, albeit for different reasons. Winners in their social dominance stand above the law and perhaps also beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche asserted. This is to say that powerful persons tend to dismiss slave morality and the values of the herd that lacks the power to live as gods among weaker women and men.

By contrast, the philosophical losers who renounce social games or who at least lose faith in the worthiness of these games are alienated because of their powerlessness. The enlightened outsider realizes that even emperors and titans of industry are feeble in nature’s maw. The certainty of death and of the element of chance in all our affairs prove that we’re caught in that maw, regardless of the fictions we need to tell ourselves so we can cooperate in large groups. By casting doubt on society’s myths or by withdrawing from cultural amusements because of their objective strangeness, the alienated person abandons certain illusions of power and purpose.  

From the exoteric, unreflective perspective of the human herd, both sociopathic winners and jaded losers are indeed parasitic because, despite their antisocial practices, these extreme individuals depend on the society they claim to reject. Without society and the dominance hierarchy, the winner wouldn’t have a social ladder to climb or rivals to crush on his way to becoming a functional apex predator. And without society, the skeptical philosopher couldn’t have learned to think in the first place, since there can be no enlightenment without a civilized upbringing. Even were these outsiders to defer to certain conventions, wearing a mask to seem domesticated in public, their heart would be inhuman: the dominant leaders are monstrous, having lost their capacity to sympathize with the plight of weaker mortals, and the withdrawn, oversensitive rebels are alienated, having lost faith not just in the value of the masses but in life’s standard goals.    

Indeed, this point about parasitism is the impetus for Leo Strauss’s advice for interpreting ancient philosophical texts, since according to Strauss, the wise person knows that ultimate truths are subversive; hence these truths are hidden so as not to offend the masses that prefer their comforting opinions to knowledge. Thus, Strauss recommends reading ancient philosophical texts as though they had double meanings, an exoteric sense for the mob, and a hidden, deeper meaning for the few who seek the forbidden knowledge (the red rather than the blue pill, as shown in The Matrix).

Is society necessarily respectable?

The outsider’s dependence on society can hardly be denied, but that’s not enough to justify the pejorative sense of Unamuno’s charge of parasitism. If society proves to be something other than an expression of “love,” contrary to Unamuno’s defense of tradition, perhaps society should be abandoned as soon as the revelation occurs, albeit after a formative period in which society provides us with the means of discovering the unsettling truth. If, for example, human society proves to be a rapacious, doomed mockery of the myths we tell to flatter us, a mockery that’s extinguished countless animal (and human) species in the name of progress and that threatens even the planet’s ability to support life, the outsider might look more heroic than villainous. Of course, we deem a parasitic lower life form, such as the mosquito, bed bug, or virus, to be a nuisance or an odious invader we strive to destroy, because these creatures are often mindless and serve only evolution’s pseudopurpose of surviving in any way possible as long as the genes are transmitted to the next generation. The same can hardly be said of the enlightened outsider, although the mental capacities of the psychopathic leader can be subhuman. Still, the revelation that she can get away with murder, that nature is godless apart from the victorious monsters we naively celebrate might illuminate as much as philosophical doubts about society’s foundational myths.  

Moreover, to speak of the instinct for social perpetuation as “love,” even taking this instinct “in its most rudimentary, physiological form,” as Unamuno says, as the drive for sexual reproduction, for example, is quite dubious. Do mosquitoes and viruses love themselves or anything else in their parasitic acts of perpetuating their species? Personifying the physiological means by which a species is sustained across time looks like a transparent attempt to dignify that which has no objective value apart from its aesthetic quality. The biological act of continuing life, such as by reproducing a body type is hardly shown to be meritorious just because the honourific label “love” can be overextended due to gross sentimentality. Life may have a redemptive purpose, but you won’t find that purpose in biology; if anything, that purpose is antinatural and discovered in spite of evolutionary processes, such as when we apply reason and objectivity that have taken on functions antithetical to our group’s survival.

Also, the claim that the cynical intellectual is hypocritical for dismissing theism and traditional morality falters for a reason given by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. Belief in God isn’t the ultimate basis of morality, since religious morality rests in turn on evolutionary grounds of altruism, such as kinship and reciprocation. However important religion may be in the development of morality, cooperation is older than religion. The social dominance hierarchy, found in groups of primates, birds, and fishes is a mechanism for organizing cooperation. Each member in the hierarchy knows its place and by deferring to higher authorities, the submissive members follow orders for the greater good, namely the survival of the species. In strictly evolutionary terms, there’s no such good, as such, as I already pointed out, but the cynic can appeal to such a mechanism or to mirror neurons and other sociobiological causes of morality as the grounds of her rational wherewithal to condemn aspects of society, since evolutionary biology is prior to theology. Therefore, the antisocial cynic needn’t be hypocritical or parasitic in a pejorative sense.

Yet another problem is that Unamuno’s claim that the cynical intellectual is specifically a “spiritual” parasite is historically suspect. In as much as the Axial Age represented a spiritual revolution in the world’s religions, those advances were largely antisocial. As with Socrates and the Athenians, the prophets of Judaism castigated Jews for failing to live up to utopian values. The spiritual insights of the Upanishads were achieved by meditation, that is, by a form of withdrawing from society, which supposedly uncovers a divine reality in relation to which conventional society is part of maya and samsara, a mere illusion we ought to escape by liberating our mind from worldly attachments. From the Mundaka Upanishad: 
The wise have attained the unitive state, and see only the resplendent Lord of Love. Desiring nothing in the physical world, they have become one with the Lord of Love. Those who dwell on and long for sense-pleasure are born in a world of separateness. But let them realize they are the Self and all separateness will fall away.  
Buddhism went further than Hinduism in denying even the unified reality of the inner self. Daoists sought to replace social laws with natural ones, in accordance with a mystical vision of the omnipresence of natural processes.

As for spiritual advances in Catholic Christianity, which is Unamuno’s favoured religious tradition, that religion is rather a spiritual setback on account of its being distinguished by its egregious compromises with secular regimes and their political schemes. The character of Jesus himself, as depicted in the New Testament, which has little to do with Catholic practice, was obviously that of an enlightened outsider, one who condemned standard social behaviour for falling short of a utopian ideal. Indeed, Jesus’s (and Paul’s) ethics and spirituality were based on the antisocial conviction that God was about to terminate human societies and judge the quick and the dead. In short, the topic of spirituality, as opposed to that of mere religiosity which indeed can provide cover for societal evils (such as racism, sexism, war, and so on), counts against the scapegoating of the marginalized members of society.

Still, from the social perspective of Everyman, deviants will seem like annoying parasites. Not just philosophy departments but the humanities in general look like embarrassing wastes of time and money, because their graduates don’t contribute much to society. What good is art and critical thinking, compared to science and business skills which produce tangible goods and profits? If philosophical skepticism leads to atheism and to amorality—and perhaps even to anxiety and depression—clearly the skeptic becomes a burden to the majority who are merely going about their civilized business (out of love, as Unamuno would have it).

Society’s perpetuation of psychopathic dominators and disenchanted intellectuals is indeed counterproductive to society, just as the development of reason freed us, to some extent, from natural selection’s grip. That will seem tragic only if you assume that nature is a loving environment or that a benevolent God is at the root of life’s evolution. If you side instead with the rational picture and infer that organisms and the universe develop with no redeeming purpose in view, you won’t automatically condemn stages of that development just because they end previous stages. One kind of evolution, the selection of genes, has clearly been supplemented by an emergent kind of evolution, the cultural selection of ideas and values, and the simulated design of biological types has been succeeded by real intelligent design due to the advent of personhood. One stage can set itself up for disaster, as it were, as it provides the conditions for its replacement or for the arrival of another game that’s played by a different set of rules. If there’s no master of games prior to nature’s mindless evolution of minds, we should be thankful that we’ve emerged to play the games we’ve devised, but we should also lament the fact that we’ve done so for no universal reason.


  1. Do you believe there is an infinite amount of knowledge?

    If you believe there is, then do you accept that there are infinite answers/truths (depending on how much you know and WHAT you know, your perspective changes). The concept of infinity must be fully grasped here. Knowledge I refer to is knowledge of all things (inner, outer, cosmos, life, society, etc.).

    If you don't believe there is infinite knowledge, would you agree that the human mind is currently (likely always has been and will be) incapable of comprehending the knowledge that does exist? That is, if we aren't wiped out by an asteroid or self-destruct.

    People dream of traveling through space, defying gravity like Superman, faster-than-light travel, etc. Is this realistic?

    1. I think Kant's distinction between phenomenon and noumenon is pretty important here. If you're asking whether I'm a mysterian, I'd say it's certainly possible there are higher forms of knowledge we can never grasp, just as ants could never grasp human knowledge. What I've been calling the philosophy of existential cosmicism leaves this open. (Lovecraft, for example, used extraterrestrial monsters as symbols of higher knowledge.) A harder question to answer is whether there are facts that can't in principle be understood by anyone from any species. Kant called those facts "noumenal," implying that all knowledge is partly subjective.

      I've written a few articles on the nature of knowledge and truth, which would be relevant here (see the links below). But I wonder what you're getting at. Are you suggesting you're in possession of higher truths and capabilities? Or just that we should be open to them instead of presuming we know everything?