Friday, May 3, 2013

Practical Benefits of Philosophy Postscript

In the linked clip, is George Costanza behaving as an essentialist or an existentialist?  Extra points for creativity and humor in your answer.

George Costanza


James R said...

OK, I'm going to say this is a trick question. He is not behaving as an essentialist because he completely repudiates "That's just who I am." He is not behaving as an existentialist because he accepts a predetermined self, albeit one that is opposite his previously recognized essential self.

This is a third way of looking at the world and the self. He is behaving as a humorentialist. It turns out to be a most pleasing way of behaving, especially for everyone else.

James R said...

By the way, the clip is hilarious. Either that is one of the funniest episodes, or I better go back and watch more of the show. said...

I viewed a few minutes of the episodes posted and found it a fine example of the irrelevancy of both existentialism and essentialist philosophies. Both seem to exist in complete moral vacuums – Hitler or Obama the obvious existentialist and Gandhi the probable Hindu essentialist. Both of these “philosophical” approaches can bring out the best and worst in humanity, both ideas are found in everyone, both are acted, by degree, on by everyone so, again, they appear to be irrelevant. One of the reasons I find Seinfeld so repugnant is its amoral view of life regardless of their philosophical approaches.

James R said...

Wait a second!!! The whole purpose of the 8 and a half (or 9 and a half) episode post is "the real-life consequences of holding a philosophical view or belief." This was brow beaten into us readers a number of ways including the conceit of disavowing the chosen title. If Myk was doing anything here he was shouting "pay attention as this is relevant!" He uses examples, studies, published works, appeals to common sense and a bunch of different ways to show the relevancy.

To call it all irrelevant in a line or two does not seem fair to Myk…or philosophy or to Ericsson or to Sartre, or to Dweck, or to Ellen or to …well I could keep going, but we've all read the posts. We need some data or reasons why each of these quoted works are not relevant.

As to morality, I'm not sure that was ever mentioned.

Big Myk said...

A few things: First, I did in fact pick George Costanza as sort of a poster child for a growth mindset. He illustrates in this clip how a person can achieve beyond perceived capabilities if he or she learns to respond differently to failure. I also see Jim's point, however, that his response is still self-referential -- his alternatives are limited to simply doing the opposite of what he did before.

Also, Jim says, "Either that is one of the funniest episodes, or I better go back and watch more of the show." I think both are true. I did not see Seinfeld that often when it was on TV. It's often very good. If they'd only get rid of the annoying laugh track. Plus, this particluar show was one of its best. I think that there's a wikipedia entry on just this episode.

As to morality and believing whether essence precedes existence or not: I would agree that an existentialist can be as evil as an essentialist. But the difference is this, a true existentialist would at least recognize that he is responsible for who he is and would be at least aware that he could choose otherwise. An evil essentialist would more likely just blame a character flaw or some outside influence and figure that this direction in his life was preordained. He agrees with Rocky in Rocky IV: "We can't change anything, Adrian. All we can do is just go with what we are." said...

Ericsson say, according to the blog, artists are made not born, there is truth to this but that does not define an existentialist any more than a essentialist. Unless, of course, they are the same things. I once heard an interview with an Indian lawyer. I said he was destined to be a lawyer and worked very hard to be a very good lawyer. In the movie “Billy Elliot” the main character believed he was destined to be a dancer, he could hear it in his head, he could do no other thing, and he worked very hard to fulfill his predisposition. Again, essentialism does not preclude action or even choice.
Dweck’s views have little to do with essentialism. It has to do with achieving a societal norm and how to get people achieve their potential and opinions of themselves so they can be successful in society. In other words, fulfill their destiny. Essentialist does not say people cannot be successful, chose, be creative or think, quite the opposite. A dharma king believing in “it is written” would seek out the good for his kingdom which would include education, self esteem, etc. so people could achieve what they are supposed to achieve. Choices would be made along the way, experiments made, all for the good. Morality is integrated into the system.
As for mentioning morality, it flows through almost every posting. Had the “Plague” taken place in Nazi Germany and the action chosen was – “yes, I will kill Jews” I hardly believe it would have been use as an example to promote existentialism. Or if Helen had said, “Evil, mean? After I’m finished with her she will have a new understanding of those words.” Again, I’m not sure the example would have been used on the blog. The cause of Existentialist has been promoted by very “moral” examples and arguments. There was not one “good” or moral example of Essentialism.
On the other hand Essentialist has been equated with non action, making excuses for one’s action or lack thereof which is quite opposite of what the philosophy promotes.
All philosophies are not isolated unto themselves; they do promote a morality intrinsic in their beliefs, it seem, however, the existentialism promotes a somewhat more of an amoral system where the act itself is the only thing that counts. Not a great philosophy to promote, as philosophy, though defined in many ways, most often provide a sense of morality along with the system proposed.
So I go back to my original premise, because neither of these philosophies are exclusively and solely restricted to any one or group of beings and either taken as an absolute limit both the capacity and uniqueness of the species, I fine both irrelevant.

James R said...

Nice! I see now we may have been misled a bit by these posts. I'd like to summarize your comment to make sure I understand your points.
1. Ericsson is pretty irrelevant to the practical benefits of essentialism vs existentialism since, as you point out, both could explain working hard to achieve an end. I'm so persuaded by your comment that we may take it a step further and say that it's likely that essentialist thinking precedes most 'geniuses' because they are driven (in a non existentialistic way). This was probably my concern with Ericsson all along.

2. Essentialism is unjustly characterized as hindering people from being successful, or being creative, or being good thinkers. Again, I think this is a good insight. Whether it was intentional by Myk or not, we got the impression that essentialism promoted a more static (or stagnant) life. You point out this is totally wrong. People with an Aristotelian view will move mountains to achieve their ends. They believe in a world of ideas with incredible power. Witness the athletes who point to the sky when something good happens to them. I don't believe they could achieve the same thing without their beliefs.

3. I recognize the validity of your point about Myk portraying existentialism in a positive moral light. Though no doubt true, I also have no doubt it was unintentional. As Myk says, he doesn't mean to imply that existentialism leads to greater moral behavior. In fact I would say just the opposite. This is something Myk knows quite well. Existentialism is often seen as amoral. Indeed it is amoral, or even immoral as seen by an essentialist. But that is not the point. The point is: Is thinking a certain way relevant in producing certain behaviors? Just as I think many athletes could not achieve their success without an essential view, Caligula could not behave as he does without an existential point of view.

4. You point out that each of us think both essentially and existentially. Again, I think you are right. If not, we would either be psychopaths (existentialists) or exhibit obsessive-compulsive disorder (essentialists). However, I see no reason why that makes either of them irrelevant in promoting behavior. In fact, since you admit both philosophies are often present, it would seem all the more relevant. The question again becomes: do these points of view change our behavior?

5. The dismissal of Carol Dweck's work is harder to accept. I see your point that we could explain her work and results as simply reformatting one's goals to make them fit better with how society feels (and with good reason). And, as with my interpretation of the Seinfeld video, we could say that this is thinking essentially—just thinking essentially with a modified goal. However, this is creeping up on existentialism. If you modify your essentialism view every time you have a problem, it would be hard to call it essentialism any longer. The ideals that you believe in would be changing too quickly or profoundly. Sooner or later you would throw up your hands and say, "All right! I give up. These Aristotelian ideals keep melting away, I'm going to concentrate upon my own act, not some goal or ideal."

This is where I think we can not dismiss Myk's posts or the fact that essentialism and existential viewpoints modify our behavior. It is when change happens. It is when we run up against a problem. We can say we are cursed, or have bad luck, or that some thing or some one has it out for us, or that the other person is bad or crazy or impossible to get along with, or, on the other hand, we can say, "I have no power over that tragedy, or problem, or failure, but I have total power over my own actions. I'm changing my behavior to overcome the tragedy or problem or failure or toward that hard-to-get-along-with person. In fact, it is the only power I have."

Big Myk said...

Perhaps I overplayed my hand, but I did not mean to equate essentialism with inaction, or a lack of choice, creativity or thoughtfulness. Nor do I wish to suggest that existentialists are somehow better the essentialists. I do believe, however, that existentialism does force one to come to terms with the idea that what you do with your life is up to you.

The fact is -- the series was inspired by what I thought was a great insight, and it was the most original thought in the posts: that there was a correlation between Dweck's growth and fixed mindsets and existentialism and essentialism. Most of what I said in the posts has been said before except that. Dweck and Ericsson have never talk about existentialism and Sartre never talked about growth mindsets (at least to my knowledge). The fact that it was an original thought also made it the most susceptible to challenge.

So, on reflection, it seems that, yes, as shmudbowl says, you could have an essentialist who also had a growth mindset, particularly if his idea of humanity's blueprint included the ability to make choices about who we are. And, I never meant to suggest that an essentialist couldn't be a hard worker or achieve great success.

But, I think my point was that essentialistic thinking about YOURSELF results in a fixed mindset. People who make statements like "That's the way I am," "I couldn't help myself," "See what you made me do," or "I just had to do it" are thinking essentialistically about themselves. They also have a fixed mindset. And, if you think that you have certain given talents and not others, it's unlikely that you will be another
Josh Waitzkin, pursuing chess and then deciding to train in the martial arts, and then become an author. While an essentialist could have a growth mindset, it very unlikely that an honest existentialist could have a fixed mindset.

I can't help but think that Dweck and Ericsson are after the same thing as Sartre, even if they don't recognize it. My guess is that both Dweck and Ericsson would agree with Sartre's observations that we are nothing else but what we make of ourselves and that we are fully responsible for our existence. Finally, I think that all three would agree that what Chester makes makes Chester.

James R said...

Ah, nicely put. Kate and I were just talking about this—sort of. It is why doctoral theses in education lack the force and lifespan of other sciences. It is because they deal with humans. We try to categorize thinking about others, but it is extremely difficult to categorize thinking about ourselves, especially ourselves with an existential mindset. Thus we can see how difficult it is to say something universal and timeless about people's behavior.

James R said...

Good posts are relevant long after they have been posted. I recently read this article, "About Face", and felt a tug between Lisa Barrett's work in countering Paul Ekman and Myk's proposal that our philosophy influences our behavior. While the relationship between Myk's posts and Lias Barrett's research is far from clear (to me anyway), I do see some similarity. Many things, in particular, emotions, may not be so universal (in an essentialist way) as we thought, but may be developed by ourselves. After all, she says, "You are the architecture of your own experience." (But there may be more research needed.)