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Kant’s advice to the lovelorn

Mike Harding on philosophers who could answer real questions.

Philosophy is a poorly-paid undertaking with few career prospects. At best, you get to write a postmodern novel that’s a runaway best seller, at worst you get a job in a university teaching eighteen year olds that there’s more to life than Sham Bam-Bam and exotic cigarettes. (Is there? Discuss). In the old days you could at least walk round town whilst people set their clocks by you. Nowadays, there’s not even that. Thus it’s hardly surprising that many of the world’s most famous philosophers did part-time work. Advice agencies were a popular source of revenue, and you’d be surprised how many people might pop in on a Monday to check up whether a particular proposition that occurred to them over the weekend was synthetic or analytic. Writing for newspaper and magazines was even more lucrative. Martin Heidegger, for example, wrote regularly for the Black Forest Gazette and was for many years their resident Angst Uberleutnant. An example of his work on the magazine is as follows:

Dear Marty,

A young man I met at a party said I had the most beautiful eyes in the world and that he wanted to interact meaningfully with me for the duration of the current period of darkness, but not necessarily to have any temporally-extended emotional dependency issues of an on-going nature. Naturally, I said Yes. Well, you do, don’t you? Now. according to a device I purchased from Boots, and used to the detriment of the lounge carpet, I discovered that not only do I exist in relationship, but something else does too. I can’t tell my mum, what should I do? (Signed) Worried.

Dear Worried,

This is an example of what I call Being-ln-The-Club. There has clearly been a releasement-towards-things without the use of the other. I suspect that if you go round to the young man’s lodgings you will find he has moved and not left a forwarding address. As the poet Holderlin said: where his word breaks off, no man shall be.

Wittgenstein was another forced to seek alternative employment after he gave away a fortune that would have bought Vienna ten times over. Consequently he worked as a part tim monk, a school teacher and, during the summe holidays, hunted rhinoceroses with a russel terrier. He was in charge of the agony page of girls’ magazine that was devoted to horse-riding publicising the lives of pre-pubescent pop star and exploring if Boolean truth functions could b applied linguistically to create a system for statin; all that could be said. The followin; correspondence is typical:

Dear Ludwig,

Please help, my mum and dad are always arguing. Dad spends all his nights down at the Working Man’s Philosophy Club and comes home reeking of language. Before we know it he’s arguing with mum about whether thoughts are something like objects in our mind that we use to describe our experience of the world, or whether the world is in fact constructed by our mind and identical with it. My mum will have none of it and says there must be an objective reality because that’s how it’s always been. I don’t know which way to turn any more and dread the long winter evenings. (Signed) Bertrand

Dear Bertrand,

Both your parents are fools and have utterly missed the point. How they can be so daft is beyond me. I have to sit here day after day listening to such un-thinking drivel: I could scream. You seem working class to me. so why study philosophy at all? Manual work is elevating and noble. We should all work with our hands, learn to be humble and respect simplicity. Sadly your parents are too stupid to recognise this fact. Your handwriting is dreadful. If you were in my class I’d soon knock some sense into you. Never write to me again.

For many years Nietzsche was the editor of gardening magazine, and in this capacity he deal with reader’s questions, a typical one being:

Dear Friedrich,

I’d like to be more successful in growing vegetables for jam making, but nothing I grow seems to look like the picture on the seed packet. Where do I go wrong?
(Signed) Cosima

Dear Cosima,

What makes you believe that the picture on the seed pack refers to anything real? This is Platonic nonsense! We are corrupted by the image of an ideal vegetable to which our gardens should aspire. It is an arrogant fiction which we use to declare that ours is the plot that deserves the prize. All such haughty culture serves this myth. In reality, there is nothing outside the garden. Even the gourds are dead! We must face the fact that nothing we can do can alter the remorseless repetition of nature. Have you thought of growing eternal red currants?

Jean-Paul Sartre was another who regularly contributed to magazines. His ‘spot the collaborator’ column was essential reading during the war years, and his whimsical ‘Irony in the Soul’ articles made him a hit during the postwar years. As existentialism really took off, following the invention of students, his views on the philosophically correct way to exist became essential reading for bohemians everywhere. Not surprisingly, he soon had advice to offer in every circumstance:

Dear Jean-Paul

I’m in a rather difficult situation. My best friend at work suffers from Bad Faith, which makes it very unpleasant for those of us who have to work near her. I really don’t know how to let her know this without offending her. What can I do? (Signed) S.

Dear Simone,

Bad Faith, or BF as we philosophers often call it, can happen to anyone who isn’t scrupulous with their moral hygiene. Obviously this is very important if your work brings you into contact with Others - waiters are frequent offenders here - but we are all at risk. When you’re alone together gently let her know that she is skimping on the introspection of her personal values. BF is often caused by a failure to tackle really stubborn, deep down excuses, so let her know that you make a point of examining your position at least twice a day – more in hot weather, especially if you’re walking by the beach. Using soft soap isn’t good enough, although newformula Camus may be useful. Simply using scepticism regularly works for most people, so does seeing the world as ultimately futile and meaningless. In really severe cases it may be necessary to abandon all forms of belief entirely and recognise your fundamental absurdity. As a last resort, suicide is invariably effective.

Our next philosopher is also French and has the name Jacques. This may, or may not be either Derrida or Lacan. Indeed, it may be neither, or both. Alternatively, it may neither be both. The difference between Jacques and Jacques is not detected in the writing of (n)either, and thus their persistence as a signifier of the phonetic exchange of transient cultural beliefs should not be assumed. Either (or none) of them worked on a well-known woman’s magazine. Fortunately, the following correspondence is all that now survives:

Dear Jacques,

I found a letter in the pocket of my husband’s suit when I was taking it to the cleaners. I know I shouldn’t have read it, but I did. It seemed very clear from its contents that he was having an affair. When I challenged him he denied any knowledge of it. What should I do? (Signed) A. Reader

Dear Reader,

While your husband is correct in denying exclusive authorship of the letter, as your reading of a text in which he is the nominal subject itself re-frames the nature of its exchange value within the symbolic system, it should not be entirely ignored. Thus we should start by questioning the signification of the letter itself. Insofar as it represents both the (imagined) desire of the husband, but also the fear of the wife the famous formula applies: Name of the (Imagined) Mistress / Fear of the Wife = Fear of the Wife / Denial of the Husband. There is a clear transposition of desire along the chain of signification, with the (imagined) mistress becoming the fear (of) the wife by the (real) husband. The denial of the husband is both a denial of (assumed) authorship, as well as - from the wife’s point of view her (transposed) desire - itself denied by her - of her desire for the (imagined) adultery if it were transposed to her and a symbolic Other. The (imagined) mistress is thus the ex-centric Other of the subjectivity of the wife, and the denial of the Husband becomes her denial of him as Name-of-the-Husband. In other words, throw the cheating bastard out.

© M. Harding 1996

Mike Harding is an existential psychotherapist and Secretary of the Society for Existential Analysis. He teachers psychotherapy at Regent’s College, London, and is also a post-graduate philosophy student at City University, where he is completing a doctorate on something obscure but meaningful.

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