Monday, June 30, 2008

Can one desire without suffering?

“Peut-on désirer sans souffrir?” (Can one desire without suffering?). When I watched the French TV news lately, I heard that this was one of the themes for the final exam for philosophy for the French lyceum this year. I was intrigued by the subject, so I decided to write a blog about it. If the students that did the “bac philo” could write an essay about it, it should also be possible for me to write a less requiring blog.
Actually I was surprised by the theme. I would never get the idea that there would be a relation between desiring and suffering in the sense that desiring would necessarily bring suffering with it. I must say that I do not know much about Schopenhauer, so maybe I am wrong, but the theme makes a Schopenhauerian impression on me. It makes me also think of Goethe’s novel “Die Leiden des jungen Werthers” (“The sorrows of young Werther”). But for someone like me who came into touch with philosophy because of my interest for methodological problems and then for the philosophy of action, a relation between desiring and suffering is far from obvious. If one enters philosophy from that corner, a desire is simply one of the reasons that can make one act. It has nothing emotional in the sense implied the theme of the French bac philo. In the philosophy of action, desiring is more like a kind of technical term. It is one of the possible pro attitudes that can function as a reason in a practical syllogism that explains (or rather makes understood, as I would prefer to say) a person’s action, as for example Davidson has made clear. It is, in Davidsonian terms, a disposition to act, a psychological factor that makes one act under the appropriate circumstances. Well, and if I do not get what I desired then I give it up, usually without much emotion involved. Often it is as easy as that. For example:

I desire to take the train of 10h22 to Utrecht
I think that I can catch the train, if I leave my house 10 minutes before the scheduled arrival of the train at the railway station
Therefore I leave my house at 10u12 and walk to the railway station


But what if I meet a friend halfway? Well, I stop and have a chat with him and I take the next train, 15 minutes later. I can do that without any grain of suffering, for example, when I am going to the library in Utrecht and I do not have an appointment there. Even more, I had the pleasure of meeting my friend, which I hadn’t seen for some time. Of course, everything depends on definition in this case, and one might give “desire” another meaning. And one’s conclusion will also depend on the meaning given to “suffering”. However, seen from the viewpoint just presented, I would say: Desiring does not exclude suffering because of this desire (in case the desire cannot be reached), but desiring does not necessarily bring suffering with it. Desiring without suffering is quite well possible. Even more, it is the normal situation.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

Well, by choosing to speak with your friend, you adjusted your desire. Considering there's another train in 15 minutes, you'll be able to fulfill your desire 15 minutes later. But if you want to use a better example, pick a desire that cannot be substituted or fulfilled easily. One that takes time and effort to attain. If you consider this hard to attain desire to be of importance to you, even better. Then analyze your state of mind while working towards that attaining that desire.

HbdW said...

Thank you for your reaction. However, I think that another example will not lead to a substantially other interpretation. In analytical philosophy the question how to fulfil a desire is simply a matter of choosing the right means for reaching your desire. But the question says something different if you interpret it in a Schopenhauerian way. For Schopenhauer desiring is part of the human condition. We always have desires, he says, and we are always striving to fulfil them. As long as that hasn't happenend we are unhappy and looking for ways to fulfil them. However, soon after a wish has been fulfilled we become bored and we start to look for other desires and the process starts again. That's why he says that desiring, and the human life in general, is a matter of suffering.