Reading my life as a “useless passion”

I was asked by my good sibling, Prof. Adam Briggle, to come to his class a couple of times to share with students about the method of “Problem Posing.” This is a technique first posited by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1999). The techniques were originally developed by the critical anthropologist to assist illiterate peasants learn to read. Freire and his colleagues believed that this would establish a bit more power for the peasants in their locales. The country folk in Brazil often found themselves oppressed by the laws written very far away from their communities, laws they did not know and could not read to learn. There was also the issue of how business owners often used the illiteracy of the locals against them.

The problem posing method was picked up and refined for use here in the United States for immigrants learning English for the first time as well as for people from areas with historic poverty.(1) Among the most famous exponents and practitioners are bell hooks and Henry Giroux. I have developed my own variation for teaching philosophy classes.

When I teach Pedagogy of the Oppressed, students quickly see that the impetus of the technique was to educate illiterate folks from the Brazilian countryside. Why am I talking about this with college age students? By definition, a college student must be literate to be enrolled. And even when they come from the poorest neighborhoods in America, they still find themselves at one of the most privileged institutions whether Harvard or some local college. What has Problem Posing, then, to do with us literate collegiates?

My usual refrain to this is straightforward: Yes… you do know how to call words off a page. You know how to connect experiences in the world to other ideas you encounter in books and classrooms. Nonetheless, you are existentially illiterate: You do not know how to read your own lives.

The systems of erudition that make-up “higher education” classically have operated by promoting critical reflection. But today critical judgment and playful imagination rarely get as much emphasis as memorizing tricks for solving word puzzles and learning to recognize formulas that can cut-to-the-chase of solving math problems. Higher instruction concerns more and more mere utility.

This emphasis on mere utility promotes a basic ability to (re)call a lot of information to mind from off the page and out of lectures. However, only a very few courses promote learning the know-how to reflect from within personal experience concerning how any of this information relates us to other people, to the social world, and/or to natural life itself.

I recall one time my mentor, Richard M. Owsley, becoming upset with one of our young friends who was arguing that mere literacy was the same as “reading.” For the Owl, to read meant not only to be able to call out the words, not only to recount what the words said, but also to see how they do mean what they say there on the surface. Moreover, how do the notions have meanings connecting beyond the surface into the depths of our lived experience? For the Owl, the purpose of reading was transcendent of the act of calling-out the recorded terms: The purpose was interpretation.

Existential literacy, therefore, would be knowing how to read (to interpret) my own life (existence).

This idea unfolded on the first class visit along with a notion from the end of L’etre et neant [Being and Nothingness] (1943) by Jean Paul Sartre. He brings his over 700 pages of observations in that text to one of those statements that reverberates in the mind. At least it has done so in my own thinkering since I first read them nearly four decades ago: To be a human is to be a useless passion.

Here is a bit more context from which I will move toward an interpretation of more than the surface meaning.

All human-reality is a passion, in that it projects to lose itself in order to establish the To-Be and to constitute at the same time the in-itself which escapes contingency by being its own foundation, the being-for-its-own-sake that religions name “God.” Thus a person’s passion is the opposite of Christ’s, because [there] a man loses himself as human so that God may be born. But the idea of God is contradictory and we lose ourselves in vain; humankind is a useless passion.

Jean Paul Sartre, L’etre et neant. Paris: Gallimard, 1943, p. 662. My translation.

The biggest challenge when reading JPS, as with so many philosophers, involves deciphering his linguistic alchemy.

First, to speak of reality and passion in the same breath draws out the interconnectedness of coming to know the world-order (reality) through my own humanness which involves under-going a pathos. As Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, tells us in his first great insight, “Life is suffering (dukkha).”(2) The Buddha means that to be alive is to under-go frustrations which can be overcome but not until recognizing why this happens, something dealt with in his other three insights.

Problem posing as well as existential literacy call for a recognition that human-reality is a life-path littered with long-forgotten passions and myriad passionate failures. Craving more than I need or even wanting enough to do more than merely survive can bend life into mechanical reactivity.

But can suffering ever cease? Or is it a need to cease craving that detaches me from blinding frustrations? Let’s put a pin in that and get a bit farther in the interpretation…

Going further along with Sartre: The To-Be as I have rendered the text transliterates l’etre, normally translated as “being” or “Being.” I prefer to keep the power of the infinitive “To-Be” in this translation to highlight how the notion for Existential philosophers points to a process that is ever on-going. In fact, to reduce l’etre to “being” demonstrates what Sartre has been elucidating throughout L’etre et neant as the reductionism of the To-Be to something stationary, graspable, and dispositional: i.e. to a utility or something useful.

The next notion that needs a bit of elaboration involves the in-itself . This very Sartrean usage (en-soi) refers to how each thing is given in fixity: Every object appears passively inserted into the world, given over to the place it must occupy with no way to be otherwise than it is. It has a slot into which it fits; it is fitting that it be kept in place. This is the lens of facticity uncritically accepted: A rock is fixed in its having to be a rock as much as any human must be affixed taxonomically as merely the animal Homo sapiens sapiens. That I can make an axe-handle out of the same wood as the tree the axe chops does not displace the wooden handle from being “just wood.”

The concept of the for-itself (pour-soi) points to how a thinking entity–say a human being–has mutability. Each person actively exerts their will by decision making. Or, at least, they might exert themself to become else-wise, to go a way none or few have gone before. A person mutates from out-of their ability to choose their own path.

For problem posing, the critical reflection upon experience begins the process of seeing how I am situated but also how I may re-situate. Existential literacy deepens the more I can see that I am not necessarily fixed as by nature but accidentally in-place by virtue of being-thrown into a world already underway.

If I can read this situation, I can decide for meanings that go beyond the accidental.

One critical error regards treating life as necessary, that is unceasingly thus. For any problem posing, there will be those times when they come against the attitude, “Well… that is just the way things are. Nobody said that life is fair.” Indeed. Nobody had to say that life is fair so long as everybody believed that life is arranged according to some pre-established natural (necessary) order. But what if it is not so securely fixed?

The majority of L’Etre et neant establishes Sartre’s bona fides as an atheistic existentialist. But not so much for denying outright that there is a Higher Power. Rather, in denying the efficacy of humans subordinating themselves to an over-determinative concept, whether it is Natural Law or Divine Mandate. Hard determinism could as easily fit into the above quote as could God. Yet, even in 1943, the concept of an omnipotent Being beyond human reach was still in more keeping with Euro-American notions of (pre)determined destiny.

So, in the above quote, God stands-in for the possibility of Transcendence: Unconditional freedom.

Rather than a fixed entity or a mutable one, this is the notion of an entity that abides in-itself-for-itself, for its own sake alone. I am inspired to call this cardinality, a pivot point that is neither inserted (thrown) into the world nor one that must perform any exertive acts (existence). As a cipher against which to regard the boundaries of human experience, this stands as cosmic assertion.

When Sartre brings up the figure of the Christ, he gives the reader an example of a historic archetype that stands-in as the annihilation of humankind for the sake of godhood. The notion is contradictory because it states that the only way to be fully human is to become fully god.(3)

I only go into all of this for the purpose of elucidating how it is that to-be-as-human is to be as a “useless passion.” Taken in terms of the everyday, it sounds as though Sartre means that humankind is utterly pointless. This certainly recalls how most people understood him during the years that Existentialism was a popular intellectual trend.

But pointlessness shoots past the subtlety of uselessness. The term Sartre adopts is l’inutile, inutility. And I believe this subtlety was actually first described by the Daoist sage Zhuangzi.

When Confucius was visiting the state of Chu,
Along came Kieh Yu–
The madman of Chu–
And sang outside the Master’s door:

“0 Phoenix, Phoenix,
Where’s your virtue gone?
It cannot reach the future
Or bring the past again!
When the world makes sense
The wise have work to do.
They can only hide
When the world’s askew.
Today if you can stay alive
Lucky are you:
Try to survive!

“Joy is feather light,
But who can carry it?
Sorrow falls like a landslide,
Who can parry it?

“Never, never
Teach virtue more.
You walk in danger,
Beware! Beware!
Even ferns can cut your feet­
When I walk crazy
I walk right:
But am I a man
To imitate?”

The tree on the mountain height is its own enemy.(4)
The grease that feeds the light devours itself.
The cinnamon tree is edible: so it is cut down!
The lacquer tree is profitable: they maim it.

Every man knows how useful it is to be useful.

No one seems to know
How useful it is to be useless.(5)

At least in terms of Thomas Merton‘s translation, I would argue that Sartre agrees with Zhuangzi who is saying something important about how folks take things in the world and attempt to bend them to fit a particular usage: We cultivate things mostly for their utility.

The issue that Sartre and Zhuangzi share also rejects that we are ourselves mere objects of utility. This, of course, reminds me of Immanuel Kant whose own deontological ethics takes as a cornerstone the unconditional imperative: Never treat another person merely as means to an end (a utility) but always as an end in themself (a singularity). Where I believe the French thinker and the Chinese sage go beyond the Mandarin of Königsberg involves the as-common problem of treating your own self merely as a static utility rather than a fluid modality.

Prof. Briggle kindly kept thinkering about all of this beyond the first class meeting where I presented problem posing and existential illiteracy. In an email exchange, he pointed out that “existential illiteracy is having our lives read to us or for us – by whatever hegemonic norms persist (and their naturalizing powers) – and that learning to read our own lives involves leaping out of that ‘matrix’ to leap inward into the flow, into suchness.”(6) And along with this insight, he offered something from Judith Butler concerning the ways fixity creeps in to human exchanges. This is from the book Gender Trouble .

I use the term heterosexual matrix throughout the text to designate that grid of cultural intelligibility through which bodies, genders, and desires are naturalized. I am drawing from Monique Wittig’s notion of the “heterosexual contract” and, to a lesser extent, on Adrienne Rich’s notion of “compulsory heterosexuality” to characterize a hegemonic discursive/epistemic model of gender intelligibility that assumes that for bodies to cohere and make sense there must be a stable sex expressed through a stable gender (masculine expresses male, feminine expresses female) that is oppositionally and hierarchically defined through the compulsory practice of heterosexuality.(7) 

The emphases are Briggle’s, but I wholeheartedly concur with him on this. If my life is given to me as a pre-written play, I must act in accordance with the character to which I have been cast.(8) On the other hand, if I recognize I have the power at any moment to re-cast–or even un-cast–my given role, I am actively interpreting a wider range of motion than that one assigned to me like I was just another object-player on the world stage.

If my thinkering expresses my philosophic faith, it provides hopefulness for what can be accomplished through the loving struggle of dissertating as well as through that of teaching not to mention regular dialog with friends: Reading my own life to achieve liberation for myself and encourage the same possibility for my fellows. This to me is heeding the vocation of humanization.

If I problem pose from my experience, I must respect that experience even as I keep a critical eye upon it. By virtue of rational conceptions, I am just another thing. But I am not merely any old thing. Because when I take up my experience to go beyond its thingly parts, I decide for taking-on a whole life. And I do this by virtue of a decisive will whereby I become an otherness, an unexpected suchness.

Suffering does not cease until the cause is known: Craving for the certainties and securities that merely gild living as surviving unto death.

Else-wise than as I could (should?) be factually categorized, I am no-thing.

As the negation of objective parameters–no matter their utility–I discover the power of my subjectivity. As the negation of empowered subjectivity–such a useful thing to be!–I become an authentic project: a decisive forecasting with no predetermined trajectory,(9) lacking the utility of being an object and the usefulness of being a subject.

I am a useless passion.


(1) For an excellent overview of early experiences putting Problem Posing into practice in the USA, see Wallerstein, N. (1987). “Problem-Posing Education: Freire’s Method for Transformation.”Freire for the Classroom: A Sourcebook for Liberatory Teaching. Ed. I. Shor, Afterword P. Freire. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 33-44.

(2) Dukkha also can be translated as frustration. It is an onomatopoeia: the clunky sound of a wheel axle being misfitted to the chariot, thus causing the vehicle to move bumpily with an annoying sound at the turn of the wheel–DUK-KHA! bump DUK-KHA! bump DUK-KHA! bump.

(3) This sounds a lot like what many “transhumanists” mean in their attempts to overcome the limits of humanity. For more on Transhumanism as well as its connections to Buddhist thinkering, I highly recommend Ross, B. (2020). The Philosophy of Transhumanism: A Critical Analysis. London: Emerald Press.

(4) The axe-handle that chops down the tree is made of the same wood as that being chopped.

(5) Merton, T. (1969). The Way of Chuang-tse. New Directions: New York, 58f. This particular section is taken from Book IV §9 of the Zhuangzi.

(6) Email from Adam Briggle to Keith “Maggie” Brown, 30 April 2023.

(7) Butler, J. (2007). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge. 208n6. ISBN 978-0-415-38955-6.

(8) Casting captures a lot of intentions really: the notion of being thrown into the world, that of being molded like metal, and that of receiving a part in a play. Maurice Natanson, who was Judith Butler’s dissertation director along with being one of the most important early American phenomenologists, has a fascinating treatment of the human as actor both on stage and in the world. See Natanson, M. (1967). “Man as Actor.” Phenomenology of Will and Action: The Second Lexington Conference on Pure and Applied Phenomenology. Eds. E. W. Straus and R.M. Griffith. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne Univ Press, 201-220.

(9) Aphorism Injection 24 April 2023.

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