Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Following Nietzsche’s spots in East Germany

During the times of restricted travel you have no choice but to take a more thorough look at the map of places around: is there perhaps anything interesting that was unfairly overlooked in the past? East Germany doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting place to visit. Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia don’t promise to contain many riveting spots. Unless your world is big enough to include some controversial philosophers from the 19th century. This summer, I read a 500-page book about Friedrich Nietzsche written by Walter Kaufmann, which was surprisingly relatable in many ways. Even though I never researched the theories of Nietzsche before, many ideas weren’t new at all – I guess this is what happens when you rely on the same original sources (Aristotle, for instance). So what could be better than researching something and then visiting the places described in the book in person – like on a school trip! Seems like an appropriate type of entertainment during the times of pandemic.

So, in the end of September I took a road-trip through several places in East Germany that were significant in the biography of Nietzsche: his home village of Röcken, the town of Naumburg where he lived, Jena – where he went insane, and finally Weimar – the place where Nietzsche died. Let’s go through these locations, and contemplate some of Nietzsche’s ideas relevant to each spot.

Fun, chatter and Heidegger

So I’ve been thinking of falsification of speech recently. The chatter. Gerede, to express it in Heideggerian terms. There’s no way out of Heideggerian interpretation of life once you step in, as it’s just way too relatable (applied Heideggerianism as a way of living!).

Does it merely come with age that at one point you no longer get amused by fun, but superfluous conversations dominated by random entertaining facts and supposedly fun stories? When the path of a conversation is nothing else but a random walk driven by unrelated facts: not thought-through, not linked to any abstract concepts, not fitted into one’s mental model. Under the facade of entertainment, such conversations are hollow, draining. They ‘take away one’s solitude without giving one company’. Because there’s no way how someone else can relate to a random entertaining fact, if it’s not generalized to the level of something a bit more generic, the level of abstract ideas, relevant to everyone regardless of circumstances of one’s particular life. And what’s the value of something that doesn’t even have an innate capacity to resonate. Does the intolerance for fun merely come with age?

Perugina and eliminative materialism

If you’re familiar with the ‘Baci’ candies – chocolate truffles manufactured by the Italian brand Perugina – you know that each truffle is wrapped into a tin foil together with a note that contains some cheesy quote about love or something similar. As Perugina website says, ‘these love notes are inseparable from the brand itself, that’s been passing on messages of love, affection and friendship since Baci Perugina was founded in 1922’.

Every note is full of words like love, heart, soul, etc. Just to give you an idea, here’re a few examples: ‘Friends are those with whom we do not fear to open our hearts’ Aelred of Rievaulx; ‘Love is a force that overcomes all obstacles’ Augustine of Hippo; ‘Let’s sin together, it’s good for the soul’ Vladimir Mayakovsky; ‘Love is what allows you to mend your wings and reach happiness’ Plato.

Quotes so cheesy that they instantly induce a gag reflex – what a brilliant thing  to put on a chocolate packaging! But jokes aside, the phenomenon of Perugina illustrates how wide-spread and taken for granted the numerous concepts from the area of folk psychology – or, common-sense psychology – really are.

Terms like love, heart, or soul – I remember how I didn’t like the lessons of literature in school just because the teacher tended to interpret everything through the lens of these exact words, the concepts I could never entirely relate to. Growing older I learnt that a good antidote to any BS spreading via mainstream discourse is the fundamental philosophy. Or, sometimes not so fundamental. The area in the philosophy of mind called eliminative materialism emerged in the 70s – its main advocates, Paul and Patricia Churchland, claim that our perception of mental states is practically false, and many concepts produced by it would soon be discarded in light of the developing neuroscience. The very existence of these concepts has to be revised, and it’s very likely that many of them will be rendered outdated.

Phenomenology of a cat

Let’s finally return to the main theme of this blog – cats! Everyone knows that the sole purpose of a house cat is to be an apartment decoration. How does the cat perceive its own existence though?

‘Machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of a beast’. That’s the phrase from a famous story by Jorge Louis Borges, «Inferno, I, 32». The story is about Dante writing his Divine Comedy. One day Dante goes to the city center of Florence and sees a leopard brought to the city by a local circus. He’s impressed by the leopard and later mentions him in the first part of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno. That day, the leopard has a dream – in the dream he is being told that he was created for one sole purpose – so that Dante could see him and later put him into his legendary poem. But then the leopard wakes up and cannot comprehend anything from the dream. Who’s Dante? What are poems? What is inferno? (Then a very similar dream about the purpose of his life is revealed to Dante, but that’s a whole different story…).

In overall, that’s a good metaphor about truth and tools accessible to our cognition in order to interpret it. Whether these are cognitive tools imbedded in us, humans, or in the felines. So let’s proceed to the original topic – how does a feline perceive its own existence, just this time – not a leopard, but a house cat.

Resisting the self-improvement craze

This week I finished the book by a Danish author Svend Brinkmann titled ‘Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze’. And even though I disagree with the author on some fundamental points and pretty much on all the advise he gives and solutions he proposes (Brinkmann is good at diagnostics, but not at the remedies), the book still raises many important themes – ‘the problematic aspects of Zeitgeist’, so to say.

As the phenomenon of self-help has been annoying me for quite some time, below are some of my thoughts and observations, as well as a few useful take-aways from the Brinkmann’s book, and… some unavoidable critique of it.

The book essentially tackles the modern-day obsession with self-help, personal development, coaching and self-improvement – often directionless and absurd. People embarking on meaningless challenges, such as running 40-km-long marathons, waking up at 5am, or reading 100 fiction books per year. How did we arrive at this bizarre point, where these activities are considered as something contributing to self-improvement?

A slogan from the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline – says: ‘Do more, feel better, live longer’. These are the key goals in an accelerating culture, and psychoactive drugs help us achieve them: to do more (irrespective of what it might be?); feel better (no matter what triggered your emotions?); and live longer (irrespective of the quality of the extra years of life?). In an accelerating culture, we are supposed to do more, do it better and do it for longer, with scant regard for the content or the meaning of what we’re doing.

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