I’ve had the magnificent fortune of recently changing my mind. Though words are poor substitutes for the full weight of ideas, the kinds that acquire gravitational fields in the formless expanse of one’s mind, the changing of a single word redesigned my interior cosmology. I used to express my mind’s orbital center as philosophy’s age-old question: how should I/we live?
But this wording is no longer palatable. Among the things in my life responsible for some degree of inexplicable malcontent, or at least an elusive unsettledness, I’ve discovered that word, “should”, as among the guilty parties.
According to our dictionaries, “should” implies an obligation, duty, or correctness. Asking how should I live asks of my obligation or duty to living, which calls to mind the rigid figure of a Catholic school teacher, ruler in hand, ready to strike should I deliver the wrong answer. Should, then, suggests an established, preordained answer. One that can be taught in schools and housed in convention. But any honest study of the subject reveals that living, whether a task or a gift, remains an irresolute affair. Through the shifting landscapes of history, there appears no correct form of living immune to the vicissitudes of time and culture. As cultural circumstances evolve, so do the potential forms of living.
So I’ve made a small, semantic change in how I express my mind’s orbital center that tries to internalize this irresolution of existing. It shifts the atmosphere of my mind, my ideas, what I envision as possible, from the drab weightiness of convention and conformity, to the unbounded atmosphere of existential creativity.
The change is this: I no longer wonder how should I/we live, but how might I/we live.
‘How might we live’ implies a creative act, an open space of imagination and possibility that can adapt to changing cultural circumstance. It also requires us to pull our heads out from reductive dogmatic environments, like unthinking ostriches burying their heads in antiquated notions of religion, or overtired employees sacrificing themselves in the name of productivity and economic growth.
Exiting Ordinary Reality
In a section titled Retreats into Unusualness, philosopher Peter Sloterdijk speaks of ‘first life’, the initial phase of an individual’s life where we borrow our concepts, osmose our ways of living from conventions around us, from friends, family members, any source other than our own experience. He writes:
“…the secessionism of the great transformative ethical systems seeks to assert once and for all that there is no salvation in the first life. The initial ties transpire as shackles that bind the souls to irredeemable circumstances.”
Asking how ‘should’ we live prolongs this first life. It searches for answers in an archeological fashion, digging up the past. He writes that in developing eccentricity, we provoke the shift from ‘should’ to might’. In a declaration that might well serve as the battle cry of existential creativity, he proposes:
“…entering ethical thought means making a difference with one’s very own existence that no one had previously made. If there were an accompanying speech act, it would be: ‘I herewith exit ordinary reality.’”
This calls for the same withdrawal from the vegetative life support of convention as Emerson did in Nature, when he asked:
“Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”
These all taken together suggest an ideal culture defined by its production of outliers. We are born into the protective womb of a cultural context that provides a veneer of sense, no matter how fragile. There is a sensible order to living, it often appears, in this culturally created environment. What’s being described here, then, is a kind of second birth that propels us beyond these comfortable confines.
The Art of Concepts
You might wonder, as I admittedly do, why all the fuss about changing one little word? If you feel I’m guilty of the usual philosopher’s sin, making a great hullabaloo about some trivial, semantic shift, my only defense is to plead the role of concepts in human life. To this end, Émile Mâle notes:
“The idea of a thing which a man framed for himself was always more real to him than the actual thing itself.”
Our concepts do more than mediate reality, they replace it. As Schopenhauer pointed out, and the Buddhists before him, I do not engage with reality so much as my own representation of it.
My representation of the world is built of concepts, borrowed and forged. What may appear on the surface as an empty tradeoff between similar words might in fact be the surface tremors of a tectonic shift in one’s conceptual representation of reality.
These sorts of earthquakes are all well and good, but so what? Is the change worthwhile? Is it something worth writing home about? The American school of philosophy asks one simple question to judge a concept: does it work? Does it do me, or the world, any good? I can hardly describe what I mean by “does it work?”, and yet, I know that this swapping of words worked, if only for me.
I was crossing a busy road when the change first occurred. My headphones playing Stephen West’s podcast on the work of Gilles Deleuze. ‘What is philosophy?’, Deleuze was asking, and answering. It was his suggestion that philosophy is not concerned with shoulds, but mights. It is not archeology, or logic, but art, and creativity. At this, I stopped, stunned, in the middle of the crosswalk. Honking. The moving about of great secret trunks somewhere in that deep unlit internal haze, the teeming interior world into which language, concepts, and our visible lives are but foggy peepholes was shaken up, and as I resurfaced and resumed traversing the crosswalk, angry drivers zooming by, I emerged anew.
To what, I’m not yet sure. But this new concept, existential creativity, shot up through the cracked ground and now it’s something I’ll have to reckon with moving forward. It’s not unlike Emerson’s original relation to the Universe, or Sloterdijk’s exit from ordinary reality. It’s a quality to be cultivated, like mental autonomy, or even a skill, like bowling.
The exit from ordinary reality may well be the entrance into one’s own. The hallowed doorway from conformity to autonomy. Like Zen’s finger pointing towards the moon, the notion of existential creativity points towards something worthwhile, an invigorating landscape of possibility, however incommunicable it may be. There’s a vitality on the fringes of life, in the wilderness beyond convention, a landscape of creativity full of those who, as Jack Kerouac’s narrator in On the Road describes, “…never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”.
We, too, might seek to burn through the thin veneers of convention that cloister us in our first lives. To explode into new atmospheres of possibility, erect new and vitalizing concepts that permit new ways of thinking. We can each declare, in our own terms:
I herewith exit ordinary reality!
and see where we wind up.