In your latest book, Happiness, Death and the Remainder of Life (Harvard University Press, 2000), you criticize both Aristotle and Freud for their attempts to systematize the activity of human life according to a single, unifying principle. In Aristotle, the principle is described as the attempt to attain happiness, and in Freud, it is the notion that the aim of all life is death. What do you suppose is the seduction of the idea that there must be a principle that underlies all that we do?
Well, I think, what does life amount to? is an important question, and it leads to other basic questions such as why does my life matter? or sometimes, what would make my life matter? But it also presents us with the temptation to construct a principle, such that the striving of our lives should naturally be a striving toward. It makes a lot of sense, for instance, when Aristotle says that happiness is what all our striving is toward. This idea of happiness as a fundamental principle is correlative with the concept that one has a life. Its very easy for us to take that for granted, but in fact, one of the things I am trying to bring out is that thats not as unproblematic a notion as one might think. In a way, though, I think thats what Plato, Socrates and Aristotle all were trying to inaugurate, the concept of having a life. Obviously, people had thought about their lives before Greek philosophy, but Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were trying to introduce a new kind of sensitivity to ones life taken as a whole.
In the book, you also suggest we might consider giving up on the fantasy that civilization is a developmental structure through which we are progressing toward some coherent greater good. Isnt the alternative to this picture a bit frightening?
All sorts of things frighten us, and not all of them are bad. Many people stick to unhealthy ways of living because theyre scared of the alternatives. Why do people get stuck in a neurosis? They might not even be aware of it, but its because the idea of living freely is too threatening to them. Part of what Im reacting to in the book is Freuds picture of civilization and progress. Contrary to popular opinion, I think Freud viewed Christianity as a significant advance over Judaism. He saw the Jews as stuck in their guilt, and he thought Christianity represented an acknowledgement of that problem. The movement of the soulfrom being an observant Jew to becoming a committed Christianwas precisely the kind of transformation Freud had in mind when he talked about making the unconscious conscious. I think, in a way, he thought psychoanalysis took things to the next level, without falling into another religious myth. Now that story makes it look as if there are cultural stages. Thats the kind of story Im skeptical of. I think giving up this image of the world is actually liberating because it allows us to get a clearer picture of how we are and how we might live more openly.
How does Happiness, Death and the Remainder of Life continue what you began in Open Minded?
Chapter 5 in Open Minded, Restlessness, Fantasy and the Concept of Mind, was an attempt to describe the mind as essentially restless. I didnt mean it in the sense that restlessness is just one fact among others that describes our mind, but rather that restlessness gets to the heart of what we are as minded creatures. When I was writing that piece, I knew I had only just begun to think about it. In Happiness, Death and the Remainder of Life, Im pursuing a radical version of that idea. Not only is the mind restless; Im arguing that its also inherently self-disruptive. The idea is that the tendency to disrupt ourselves goes to the core of the kinds of minds we have. Thats the idea, and I plan to work further in this direction. Im still just beginning, really.
As much as your work represents an open-minded interrogation of ancient and modern philosophers and theorists, youre also widely respected as a political commentator. Are you at all surprised by this role?
Surprised is not the right word, but I wasnt expecting it. I do it for my own amusement, and Im delighted to see that people read it and want to hear more. But when I was a young man, I thought about becoming a journalista politically engaged journalist. Instead, I chose to pursue something more academic and intellectual. But I dont think I ever really lost the interest in commenting on the events of the day. Another part of it is being at Chicago as a member of the Committee on Social Thought. Theres a sense of commitment to the world, which creates an atmosphere thats open to things like that. But also, I suppose like anyone else who spends time getting frustrated over the events of the day, for me it can be fun just to bang something out on the keyboard. I like to writeit comes easily to me, and I dont really suffer over itso I can just spend a few hours in the morning and its done.
Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Freud and Wittgenstein are some of the thinkers with whom youve engaged in your writings, but in the epigrams to your recent books you also quote Proust, Kafka and Bob Dylan. Is there a sense in which musicians and novelists have played a role in the development of your thought?
I suppose the answer must be yes. Ive lived with these lines for years. Theres one line from Dylan that I almost put in the frontispiece to this latest book but decided not to. Its from the song, Trying to Get to Heaven, on Time Out of Mind. Its the part where he says, they tell me everythings going to be alright/but I dont know what alright even means. You could almost sum up the first chapter of my book around that sentence. I hear these lines or read them, and they just register in my mind, and I live with them for decades, really. Exactly what they mean or how they work on me, I dont know. But there are different ways of establishing intimacy with a readerone is a footnote and another is an epigram. Theyre just two different ways of extending the conversation.