The Philosophical Lens of a Camera

by Grace Sargent, January 24, 2023


In American philosopher and writer Susan Sontag’s In Plato’s Cave, the concept of photography is examined from a philosophical standpoint and connected to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. She details the way in which we as humans interact with photography and the large role it plays in our lives. Ultimately, Sontag proclaims that we remain in Plato’s cave by emphasizing how our consumption of photography is flawed—that we take photographs to show the truth, when in reality, they are mere versions of it. The ideas she presents are incredibly insightful and should be taken into greater consideration by our media-centered society. Philosophers like Sontag encourage valuable introspection that could likely afford each of us a healthier mindset pertaining to media consumption, and ultimately improve our relationship with the media. 

Greater Context and Connections

To begin the discussion of Sontag’s piece, we must first understand the work from which she draws upon: Plato’s Allegory of a Cave. Although Sontag’s In Plato’s Cave talks specifically about photography, Plato was actually interested in investigating our relationship with knowledge and our view of the world as a whole, and he painted an obscure picture in order to set the stage for his theory. Plato describes an alternate universe where a group of people exist who have experienced their entire lives within a cave, and they have been restrained in a way where they are only able to view shadows of statues created by other people. For a long time they view these shadows as a true form of something—a man, woman, or horse. However, when they are forced out of their protective cave, they come to the realization that the shadows they took to be the truth were mere versions of the real objects that exist in our world. Plato then connected this with our perception of our surroundings, explaining that we are constantly misinterpreting false forms of reality as the truest ones. Overall, he implored us to seek greater knowledge, education, and understanding. Though his work is thousands of years old, its message is timeless; as a society, one of our main goals at all times should always be to actively search for new knowledge and make an attempt to constantly enlighten ourselves, moving ever-closer to the actual “truth.”

Sontag’s Standpoint

Sontag takes Plato’s brilliant approach and applies it specifically to humanity’s relationship with photography, aptly pointing out how centered it is around absolute reliance. She heavily emphasizes Plato’s aforementioned theory of forms, which is a crucial concept. Sontag clarifies how we believe photographs to maintain “narrowly selective transparency,” and contrasts it with photography’s subjective reality (Sontag 4). In other words, we see images as the entire truth and fail to recognize how they are manipulated and presented to us. A wonderful example Sontag provides is one quite common to us: not believing in something until we are given a picture of it, consequently proving its existence in our eyes. This directly correlates to the group of people in Plato’s cave, and how they wrongly viewed the shadows to be the absolute truth. In our modernized situation, the photograph is the misinterpreted truth, while the subject of the image is the real truth. 

Here it becomes crystal clear how, despite all the time that has elapsed since Plato’s allegory, we as a society remain stuck inside his cave—we have not yet mastered the ability to reach a greater depth of understanding regarding the media presented to us. In order to fully understand where Sontag is coming from, we must be shown instances where her point is validated. In her piece In Plato’s Cave, she gives the strong example of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography project conducted in the 1930s, where people from this organization were sent out to capture images of the effects of significant events such as the Great Depression. While one may believe that these photos are irrefutably unbiased, such an assumption isn’t necessarily accurate  due to the intentions of the photographers as they capture their carefully planned shots. At the end of the day, they were trying to present images of impoverished, grief stricken people. The pictures showcased to the public emulated this strong bias, similar to how the countless amount of photographs in our life now contain hidden truths. It is because of this that we cannot take images as entire truths of something. Rather, we should be more inquisitive of what is presented: what is being photographed? Who is photographing it? Why is this photographing taking place? These are all contextual questions that can help us uncover the truth that is being obscured, and can—referring back to Plato’s desires—aid us in our journey to acquiring greater knowledge and understanding. Furthermore, they will propel us further out of where we remain: Plato’s cave.


In conclusion, both Plato and Sontag present extremely thought-provoking approaches to areas of our life we tend to shield from deep questioning: knowledge and photography. Through their developed discussions, we are able to gain a better understanding as to where they are each coming from, but also to use them in conjunction with looking further into a singular idea. By listening to Plato, we realize that he has found a flaw in our interpretation of the world, urging us to take necessary steps in improving it. Subsequently, by listening to Sontag, we recognize those same faults in our viewing of photography, and how we should alter our damaging behaviors. By intently listening to each of them and viewing them as pieces in conversation, we are one step closer to reforming the way in which we approach modern photography.

Works Cited

Plato, and J. M. Cooper. Complete Works /Edited with Introduction and Notes by John M. Cooper. Hackett, 1997. 

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. RosettaBooks, 2005.

Individualism Impacted From Literary Studies

by Jamie Budhram, October 28, 2022

As I sit under the trees on a New York City park bench, I am reminded of The Zoo Story, in which two men from different walks of life relate to each other’s struggles that are rooted in their developed society. I feel connected to the idea of the unknown creating loneliness. As I watch people from all different cultures and backgrounds pass by, I realize I know nothing about each person, nor do they know me. Yet, that is the way we begin to understand the unknown: by placing a persona onto others. Based on our ignorance, it’s clear that as citizens we decide who is important to us and who isn’t, which is determined by our actions. 

However, I would argue it is not entirely our ignorance, but rather the shallowness of our individualism. Individualism is defined as a social or cultural tradition or personal outlook that emphasizes the individual and his or her rights, independence, and relationships with other individuals (“APA Dictionary of Psychology”). Emphasizing individual rights can be seen as shallowness, as being shallow means lacking emotion and consideration, even though it ultimately strengthens individual purpose and ambition. Without individualism, a person defines their contributions to society, as well as themselves, from an open-minded perspective. 

To fully answer the question of the factors that impact our individualism, I sit and watch people walk by. Society affects our individualism because it pertains to not only yourself but to unknown people as well. W.E.B. Du Bois argues about the actions of the South where Black Americans were to never be leaders, but should instead work to give to others, and for those who ever strive to be leaders, they should be supported by their communities (Du Bois 62-63). I see those who live for themselves and those who live for others, with everyone having different beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that affect the way they perceive themselves. Watching a white man dressed in a suit and designer jewelry creates a feeling of inferiority that either triggers motivations for success or dispirited thoughts of failure. Now I see a person or similar race and it seems to be an inspiration. Is it not human nature to be utterly selfish? Then why do I feel a sense of empowerment from seeing someone from my background succeeding in something? This phenomenon exists within society, where the feeling of being inspired by someone similar to you leads to believing that the prospect of success is real for those like you. Du Bois discusses the feeling of disempowerment from seeing success in others because it seems that if others have so much success, then there is barely any success “left” for other individuals, and that is why we feel disempowered (Du Bois 101-103). Society lives in a way in which it functions to empower the individual, but it is the way we perceive each other that makes it difficult to wake up the next morning and challenge our abilities, since some people have so much more success than others. 

I get up from the bench and decide to walk in the crowd of people, but it feels fast and uneasy as if I am no longer walking but rather observing. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, describes such a feeling in his book, How to Walk, making me question how uneasiness affects the way I feel about the places I enter. As I walk into Stephen A. Schwarzman Library with the year of establishment, 1967, in very visible and bright writing, I envision what it looked like for the people who designed and built this place with each step. After viewing all the men, women, and children passing by the library, I start to question how they would describe their experiences here. Ultimately, everything I have written is from a male’s perspective, which Virginia Woolf discusses with her understanding of the way history is taught (Woolf 119-120). Everything I have learned and what I am currently writing creates an image and thought that only I can truly understand. Even by describing the intricate designs on the ceiling or the fine details of the statues, it would still not be enough to fully immerse the reader the way that a firsthand experience would. This is because history, as it is written with every moment in time, tries to replicate the experience, but does so unsuccessfully. It has been said for centuries by figures such as Winston Churchill, George Santayana, and Edmund Burke that those who do not acknowledge history are doomed to repeat it, and thus there is a stigma that history should never be repeated. However, we push people to learn from their mistakes, so why treat history differently? The reason why past experiences are never replicated seems to be that we shun history. This shunning begs the question: is it possible that the truth we shun about history isn’t so true? We all want what we have learned to be the truth, but what if it is not? What if something taught for centuries starts crumbling down when a new “truth” arises? That’s how history wants people stuck; it gives a confirmed answer to everything so others do not question or move away from it. According to the U.S. Historian Henry Glassie, “history is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveler.” This attitude affects the way we look at the whole world. For instance, America is known for its dark history, yet there is a strong sense of nationalism that disregards what used to exist. Whether it be for a woman, a Black American, or any group of individuals who have been oppressed by America, there is continuous forgetfulness for those who have suffered. There’s no truth in history, only perspective. In Japan, for example, the government does not acknowledge the Nanjing Massacre and the murder of thousands of Chinese citizens by neglecting to include it in their history textbooks. In this case, their perspective– or their truth– exists differently from what others believe, whether it be just or unjust. No one can truly understand unless they have lived through the Massacre. Now when I walk, I understand that I am in control of history, but some may have different perspectives and versions. 

A person’s ancestry affects their present-day self. Growing up Indo-Guyanese in America caused somewhat of an identity crisis within me. We leave a place that was once called home to live in American society and form new habits that revolve around the new culture. In both countries, I am asked where I am from. Where do I truly belong if no one knows where I belong? What is my community? The suffering of my ancestors, those tears and anger, make me who I am today. Yet, grasping this suffering is difficult when it’s presented in front of others. In some way, shape, or form, generational trauma exists within everyone, but it isn’t necessarily addressed or educated about. It is similar to Virginia Woolf discussing lesbian relationships within literature, a drastic change from older literature because they were not as direct about the former taboo topic (Woolf 88-89). In the “Book of the Dead,” dating back to ancient Egyptian society, two men in a homosexual relationship hid their relationship until death. It’s clear that in Egyptian culture, such relations were deemed wrong. This demonstrates how literature takes on the role of educating about change and that every individual has the choice to learn from the literature.

Being able to accept your current individual self is made difficult when faced with the fact that in the past, others could not accept themselves. This psychological concept follows practices taught from generations ago to this very day. For example, an atrocious father can place those same habits he knows onto his children, hurting their future children. It can detrimentally impact families and loved ones, but with change, generational trauma can heal. Racial trauma, for example, is connected to all of this by making people of our era want to fight for our rights more desperately. By affecting the person, it can cause an intense amount of distress, isolating themselves despite the fact that they did nothing wrong, but simply because something could have triggered them to feel that way. The task of improving or healing generational trauma isn’t easy, especially when culture is involved. Asian culture, for example, is filled with ideals of toxic masculinity and emotionless discussion with loved ones. That is why there is a constant need, especially for American immigrants, for some type of therapeutic experience. Cultural issues like toxic masculinity, social judgment, and lack of self-awareness, seek to impact generational trauma, ultimately playing a role in why an individual thinks and acts a certain way. With this in mind, expectations come in, through which our loved ones impact the individual when it comes to learning about who they are currently and who they will become. 

Within families, the word expectation means fate. Du Bois argued that Black Americans had to decide whether their lifestyles were going to be based on representing the Black American community or if they would be based on their personal beliefs and thoughts (Du Bois 3-4). This seems to be the same case today. When talking to my peers, there is a clear consensus that the struggles of our immigrant families widdle down our options to being either a doctor or lawyers. Judgment and comparisons with others scare families, especially when it comes to status or money. It puts ceaseless pressure on an individual, with some regret if they did not fulfill that expectation. This is why I believe families look at it as fate. When an individual fails to meet what is expected of them, they are shunned, or if they go onto separate routes, they are ridiculed for having their own thoughts. This goes back to the idea of whether an individual truly lives for themselves or if they live for the validation of others. This continuous cycle of questioning every decision made on its properness seems never-ending. With peers, it seems as if it’s a race to see who will succeed the highest rather than who will be the happiest. This concept of having something that should be wanted into something that is needed affects every individual simply because they want to live as others do. 

That is why I observe and watch. This shallowness that exists from generational trauma, society, history’s perspective on truth, and family and peers, disrupts the continuation of unpacking our individualism. Observing the people of the world is like watching the stars at night; there are millions of unique ones that we look at. We focus on the constellations that enhance the night sky’s beauty and we envision how bright it is all across the world, and simply look up at what exists now.

Works Cited

“APA Dictionary of Psychology.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. New York, Johnson Reprint Corp, 1968.

Woolf, Virginia. Room of One’s Own. Rupa & Co, 2022. 

What should we do about suffering? Jean-Paul Sartre on human responsibility

by Zelalem Amera, September 29, 2022

There is so much suffering in the world. Fyodor Dostoevsky explores this suffering in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, where he tells the story of three brothers, Ivan, Alyosha, and Dimitri. They each symbolize philosophically distinct ideas, and Ivan Karamazov, who embodies the voice of creeping nihilism, has a memorable conversation with his monk brother Alyosha (whom he considers naive). He goes on an animated rant, telling Alyosha the story of a five-year-old girl who is locked up in a shed by her parents covered in excrement; Turk soldiers who ripped out a baby from the mother’s womb and impaled it with their spears for sport; parents who physically abused their seven-year-old girl and were acquitted by a jury to continue their horrific antics; and a man who let loose a pack of dogs on a young boy and forced his mother to watch because the boy had hurt one of his hounds (Dostoevsky). 

This is only a small excerpt of the accounts of human suffering that Ivan describes. His speech on the problem of evil is one of the most moving sections in Dostoyevsky’s novel. By the end of Ivan’s tirade, we have a bleak depressing picture of what human suffering is about. Even Alyosha, the ever optimistic and faithful character, seems to doubt his own beliefs by the end. 

The world is full of injustices that offend us in ways that other things don’t. This kind of injustice is personal. It puts a void in our peace and makes us see the brutality of life. Perhaps for the sufferers it’s normal, but we cannot ignore this reality in good conscience. Turning a blind eye won’t make this fact go away. What are we to do with human suffering?

The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre tries to address this question in his book Being and Nothingness, where he lays out an entire ontological framework for human reality. In the end, all Sartre says to conclude is, “All of these questions refer us to a pure, and not complicit, reflection. They can be answered only within the domain of morality, to which we will devote a future work” (Being and Nothingness 811). What an anticlimactic way to end such a profound work! Despite the immense scope of his book, which covers everything from consciousness and bad faith, to love, relationships, and society in general, we will try to simplify and explore one common theme which runs throughout, the relationship between freedom and facticity. Sartre argues in his book that human reality is structured in such a way that we are all free even in the midst of terrible circumstances. We must be free even when we don’t get to choose our reality. 

To get our readers on the same page with some of the jargon used here, freedom is simply the fact of being responsible for a choice. Sartre defines humans as fundamentally free beings. Consciousness is always consciousness of a choice. We all live in the context of a possible future, and it is through our projecting of our own possibilities that we bring a new reality, or being, into the world. You plan an action in your mind before it becomes a reality. You think about eating a sandwich before you actually get to the task of eating it. This is an example of your freedom in action. Naturally, freedom is what allows you to be happy. Happiness is being able to do what you want. To be free is to be happy. 

Facticity is what someone or thing is. It is essentially the meaning we associate with the physical manifestation of reality. “Black hair” is the facticity of the thing on your head.  

For Sartre, the idea of freedom coincides with the concept of nothingness. It is only because humans are nothing that they can bring about being. It’s a rather cryptic concept to understand, but it is not important for our discussion.

What we are interested in answering is the above mentioned question, how do we deal with suffering? We live in a time when we are hypersensitive to injustice. We are trying to create a world where everybody has an equal chance at happiness and success, but this often leads to an overwhelming amount of conflict between political parties, countries, and even among family members. In a way, we are all vulnerable to the implications of this question.

Actually, we must first take a few moments to examine why this question matters to us so much. Why does suffering matter so much? How does it affect you personally? 

Have you ever looked at someone else and wondered to yourself how it was unfair that they are prettier, taller, wealthier, or smarter than you are? It’s not like they deserved to have these things more than you did. How are you to blame for your genetics or your family? Not only that but it seems like these things ultimately affect where they end up in life. For example, if you are born to a rich family, your odds of living a more successful life are higher. If you are attractive, people will probably pay more attention to you, and it’s going to be easier for you to find friendship and love. If you are a citizen of a powerful country, it is easier for you to find employment, education, and build a life. We can even take this a step further and say that these people with natural advantages can solidify and secure their position in society, ultimately making it so that other members of society can’t be happy even when the natural conditions are leveled out. However, that is another discussion.  

This unfairness is at the essence of being in a minority group. You want to have the same fighting chance as someone else, but you are limited by your situation. If you’re from an immigrant family, you want to get into Harvard just as much as everybody else. But if due to factors outside of your control this is not possible, then obviously this would make you frustrated! Why should you be punished for something that is not your fault? How are you to blame for your financial or social circumstances? Whether or not we are on the privileged side, we can relate to the frustration of not being able to get what we want despite all our efforts. We all want to be free to pursue our happiness, but are we all free? 

We cannot choose what we are. We don’t choose our race, sex, parents, economic and social background, and country of origin. From the moment we are born, we are labeled with meaning that doesn’t come from us. How can any of us be responsible for all of it? We can’t even hold the people in power responsible for the fact that they were born to it. This is why the question matters. Are we still responsible for our happiness even though we don’t get to choose our circumstances? Can we hold people who are born in terrible conditions and live short lives accountable? Are they still free to choose? Jean-Paul Sartre would definitely argue yes. In fact, he would say that we have no choice! We will use a simple example to explore his answer.      

Imagine a tall man and a short man. They both want to be good at playing basketball. Obviously, the rules of the game discriminate against shorter people. We can all agree that from the start that the tall guy has a natural advantage over the short guy, because he has a better vantage in relation to the hoop. Neither of these two men are responsible for the facticity of their height. The tall man is not responsible for the fact that he is tall, and the short man is not responsible for his shortness. However, if we put both of them in an arena with zero experience and all other factors accounted for, we should expect to see the tall person outperform the short one.

Now, you may object to that and say, “what if the short person has better eyesight?” or “better hand eye coordination?” Well, let us assume for the moment that all these other traits have been accounted for and the short and tall person are both equal on all levels except their natural height. Besides, if height was not an important selecting factor for prowess in basketball, the NBA would not be so full of tall people. Over a period of a few months, one would expect the tall person to vastly outperform the short one, given the same amount of practice and training. The game would be significantly easier for him simply because he is taller.

But let us digress here and say that somehow that doesn’t happen. Actually, from the moment those two are put in the arena, the short man seems to perform way better than the tall person. And a few days later, the short person is even better than the taller person, to the extent where he is making most of the shots he attempts and is humiliating his opposition. So how do we explain this counterintuitive situation? 

We must imagine that when the short person went into the arena, he was thinking to himself, “I know I’m at a natural disadvantage, so I must try harder to win this game. I can’t afford to make mistakes.” Whereas the tall person was thinking to himself, “well, I’m taller than him so how hard can it be to beat him? Really, I don’t have to be that worried.” Of course, he could have thought to himself, “I should probably use my natural advantage to win against him,” but he didn’t have a reason to.  

The short man, knowing that he must try harder, plays less carelessly; he doesn’t attempt shots that don’t work; he second guesses himself more; he thinks about the best path to winning; he is more devoted to the task of winning; he finds more options; more possibilities open up to him and he exploits these possibilities. An observer might conclude that he is a “natural,” but that is not the case. He is just much more devoted to the task of winning than his competition. He is more desperate. So, the short man practices for longer hours. He works harder at getting better than the tall man and that is why he is unexpectedly better at the game than his naturally gifted competitor. It’s the classic “The Tortoise and the Hare” story we heard as children. 

So what? Have we answered the question then? Can we conclude from this that despite your natural advantages, if you don’t work hard you will lose, and despite your natural disadvantages, you can still win if you bridge the gap through your commitment and hard work? No, there is still something off.

What if we weren’t dealing with a tall person and a short person. What if that is too fair? “The Tortoise and Hare” story suggests that our freedom can bridge the gap between our natural differences. Presumably, we are all free to pursue happiness and able to get it at least in theory. If you are born in a poor country, then all you have to do is work extremely hard and you will be just as successful as someone from a wealthy country. If you are short, just make up for it by being smart or strong or something else. But this seems a bit naive, doesn’t it? 

What if the tall man was competing with a cripple? 

Ah! You might balk. Life would never be so unreasonable! Actually, life is exactly this unreasonable. A person who is born from a poor dysfunctional family in an obscure country is not just a short man, he is a crippled man. We must emphasize this point for some members of our audience who have not been outside the country. There are places in the world where people live in abysmal conditions. There are kids who are born in the middle of civil wars, who live very short, miserable lives. Surely, they can’t be expected to compete and win, right? What about people who are born with serious medical conditions that prevent them from moving or talking? And what about the people Dostoyevsky described in Ivan’s speech? No, we must hold the position that some people are indeed born cripples. 

But doesn’t this mean that we are not all free? “The Tortoise and the Hare” story does not hold up to scrutiny. Sometimes, hardwork and commitment are not enough to bridge the gap between our circumstances. Sometimes, we can’t get what we want no matter how hard we try.  

So what now? Is freedom a lie? Is it an arbitrary thing that only the privileged have? The question is now even harder to answer; how does a cripple compete in a basketball competition and expect to win? How is he responsible for his inevitable failure? How are you responsible for your happiness even though you aren’t responsible for your circumstances? 

This is where Jean Paul Sartre breaks the bad news: “We should not confuse my freedom to choose with my freedom to obtain” (Being and Nothingness 658). What does this mean? Is he trying to dodge the question with some sort of sophism? What is the use of a freedom that is stripped of its content? What’s the use of being free if you can’t be happy?

What Sartre tries to emphasize in his book is the absolute necessity of freedom for being. Nowhere in the description of his idea of freedom does he permit that a freedom necessarily has to get what it wants. In fact, the absurdity of freedom is that it’s not even free to choose itself. 

To bring it down to a practical level. What he is saying is that when it comes to happiness, nobody can get away from responsibility. Being born with advantages is not enough. You must act. It might be easier for you to get what you want, but you still need to do something. You are not free from challenges. If you are born a cripple, you will probably never beat someone at basketball (and yes, we can talk about how the modern world allows the possibility for prosthetics, but that is another arena with the same sort of problems to play out). You are still forced to play, and even if you refuse to play, that is still a choice you must be completely responsible for. 

Even if you never reach your goals because of your situation, even if you are in a position where you can’t because you are oppressed, you are still responsible for your happiness. Perhaps the absurdity in Sartre’s argument is that he suggests that a person is free to punch a brick wall continuously until his knuckles bleed. He is free to act towards a goal which he knows is impossible. If he quits, he is still free. There is nobody to blame but himself. There is no god to complain to. This is just the way it is. In fact, his oppression only makes his freedom more apparent to him. What an absurd thing to suggest! This is probably what Sartre means when he says, “nowhere were we freer than under the German occupation” (“The Republic of Silence” 1).

We cannot hide in our facticity and say, “this is my destiny.” Even the best of us need to act in order to make our goals happen. Facticity will not save you from choices. You can’t say, “I lost the game because I was short.” No, you lost the game because on a certain level, you chose to lose the game. 

Even if you lost the game because you couldn’t compete with someone taller than you, you were still responsible for winning it. Even if you have no chance at getting what you want, that still does not absolve you from the responsibility of acting. Who are you going to complain to? Who is going to fix this unfair and absurd situation? If you want to be happy, you have to try anyway. You could try to change the circumstances of course, but not every inequality can be leveled out. You don’t always have the power to level the playing field. But you always have a choice. Even if you give up on your happiness and commit suicide, it is a choice you are fully responsible for. There is no escape from freedom. As Jean Paul Sartre would put it, “I am condemned to be free” (Being and Nothingness 577).

This doesn’t sound very appealing of course! We started out with hopes of a reassuring solution to the problem of inequality but what have we concluded? That it doesn’t matter either way! Whether or not we are equal does not save us from this burden. We are all responsible for our happiness even if we don’t get to choose the playing field or what tools we have at our disposal. We are not responsible for our circumstances, but we have to be completely responsible for the outcome. This is the absurdity of life. We all must be free. Sometimes, we must be free even when our freedom is useless.

Now that we have established this conclusion, we must go off on a tangent and ask one more question: do the weak deserve to suffer then? If it’s true that human beings are completely responsible for their happiness and nobody is going to save them from choosing, doesn’t that mean people are responsible for their suffering? If you lose the game, make a mistake, or mess up your life, doesn’t that mean you deserve the outcome you chose? If you can’t blame your circumstances or your nature for your failure, and if you can’t blame God, then who else is there to blame but yourself?

The implications of this conclusion are obvious. We are not morally obligated to do anything about suffering. Everybody, even the most needy people, are responsible for their circumstances. Complaining is pointless. One must suck it up and make it work anyway. 

But isn’t this depressing?

This is the image that you get when you look at human reality from the perspective of the individual: an abandoned, lonely person, who is completely responsible for his life and must face forces way beyond his capacity to survive and be happy. Perhaps the implication of this conclusion is that to focus so heavily on the individual is unnatural. 

Human beings are social animals.We are always surrounded by people, and we will never escape from them. It seems absurd to construct a philosophy dealing exclusively with the individual. The individual is never alone in the world. He is not abandoned, he is abandoned together with the rest of human reality. It is not an I that defines human reality, it is a we. 

No, the weak do not deserve to suffer because if the individual is not powerful enough to fix his circumstances, and if there is no god who will make everything right, then that is more reason for us to take up the mantle. We did not choose to be here, so we must roll up our sleeves and get to the task of building the kind of world we want. 

But who is this “we” in all of this? Is it America? China? Russia? Is it the West or the East? Are women included in this “we?” We must refer to every conscious individual. We must somehow find a way to make a connection with everybody. You can see how this makes our task so much more difficult. Every human being working together under the same flag? That seems absurd doesn’t it? When “mankind” conquered the moon, whose flag was it that was planted on the surface? Was it really one small step for mankind? Does anything we do have this humanism in mind or are we all selfish on some level?

This is what we have concluded from our discussion on human suffering. On a fundamental level, we are all facing the same problem. We are all trying to be happy in a world we do not choose. Literally and metaphorically, we are in the same boat. There is camaraderie in that, and the injunction is to be kind to one another; not just some people, but everyone. We may never get to this utopia, but we must try, and to accept our radical freedom and responsibility is the first step. 

Works Cited

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Routledge books, 1943.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. 1880. 

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Republic of Silence.” Lettres françaises, 1944.

What Does it Mean to be Free: Sartre’s Take On Human Freedom in the Face of the Nazi Regime

by Gina Koch, April 15, 2022

Jean-Paul Sartre is undeniably one of the most prominent philosophers of the twentieth century and the chief founder of existentialism. The works he published influenced various ideologies spanning philosophy, politics, literature, and cultural studies. Sartre, like most philosophers, had his moments of being subject to public disappointment and outrage. After living through World War II as a French prisoner of war, he sparked outrage when he published the essay, “The Republic of Silence,” which he started with the infamous line “Never were we freer than under the German Occupation” (Sartre, 1).

In  “The Republic of Silence,” Jean-Paul Sartre explores the concept of true freedom amid the Nazi German occupation of France. Extreme conditions often breed unique schools of thought for many thinkers, and Sartre was no different. Being a witness and victim of the brutal Nazi regime resulted in profound ideologies coming to light, especially regarding the concept of freedom as evidenced by his essay “The Republic of Silence.” Sartre explains that the essence of true freedom materialized during times of oppression. When people are condemned to extreme conditions of suffering, the sanctity of every thought and every right becomes apparent, and they are faced with the question of their freedom. There exists no force or authority that is capable of taking away one’s freedom because it is inherent and essential to the human condition. However, some forces can place physical limitations on one’s freedom, and it becomes a grave situation when these limitations go so far beyond as to attack one’s rights, beliefs, and principles. Under such an attack, people have the choice to exercise their freedom and resist such oppressive forces or partake in bad faith and give up on such beliefs and principles. This concept of freedom was different from other ideologies circulating at the time. For example, French philosopher Albert Camus, known for his contributions to the absurdist movement, maintained that human freedom is not inherent to humans but rather a state of mind achieved when people understand the absurdity and meaninglessness of life; thereby stopping themselves from constructing some greater meaning from it (Camus). Many differing ideologies regarding human freedom circulated during this war-torn era, but Sartre’s ideas managed to stand out among them. 

During the Nazi era in Germany, which lasted from 1933 to 1945,  particular groups of people such as the Jewish, gypsies, homosexuals, and any other groups not considered a part of the superior Aryan race were targeted as part of the ethnic cleansing scheme initiated by political leader Adolf Hitler. These groups faced oppression, suffering beyond imagination, and witnessed their inherent and basic rights being stripped away from them. They were stripped of their citizenship, denied interactions with those considered part of the Aryan race, and sent to concentration camps, often to be killed. Sartre, being a philosopher who means to seek meaning in everything that happens around him, found hope among the brutality that surrounded him. In his essay, he claims, “never were we freer than under the German Occupation” (Sartre, 1). It is quite a wonder that Sartre was able to find such freedom when the majority of people around him were arrested, sent to concentration camps, or killed. He is not talking about physical freedom, but inherent freedom; the freedom that governs the human condition and is an essential part of existence. He compares the manner people think in during peaceful times and during atrocious ones, similar to that of Nazi occupation. 

As Sartre says, “In this way, the very question of freedom was posed, and we were on the verge of the deepest knowledge human beings can have of themselves” (Sartre, 5). During times of oppression, people tend to question the limits of their freedom and their character questions that were neglected during peaceful times. Would they resist the torture and hold on to secrets and information about the resistance movement or would they give in to the pain and reveal secrets that can lead to numerous arrests and deaths? It is during moments like these that people question their freedom and existence because the choices they make can have profound effects, many times concerning life or death. Sartre also discussed “resistance was a true democracy” (Sartre, 6). There was solidarity in how they resisted the Nazi regime. During such difficult times, there is a sense of equality and responsibility among the people that is not palpable in society during peaceful times. Sartre claims he witnessed the strengthening of the Republic because everyone shared the same freedom regardless of their rank or position within the movement. The freedom they experienced while under the ironclad rule of the Nazi regime was one that was true, absolute, and equal. 

The freedom that Sartre discusses in his essay is distinct from the conventional idea of freedom that many may have. The freedom to do anything one wants is separate from the true and absolute freedom that Sartre refers to. True personal freedom is one’s ability to express their beliefs and principles regardless of the forces that govern them. It is the ability to make choices regardless of any rewards or material possessions one may obtain as a consequence of their choice. In an oppressive society, personal beliefs often start to take precedence over any material possessions and sometimes, over their own life. In other words, people are willing to die at the hands of their oppressors rather than give up on what they believe in. In his essay, Sartre explains that people often made the authentic choice in the presence of death, and it was through this act that they were able to exercise true freedom. Many of those who were tortured at the hands of the Nazis resisted revealing any information they had on the resistance movement because they stayed true to believing that their people should be freed from the oppressors. This choice may have cost them their lives but they did so as part of exercising their freedom. If they had instead chosen to spill information as a means to keep themselves alive, they would have continued living a limited life; one in which they sacrificed their freedom and lacked any meaning or purpose because they abandoned any beliefs they had. People are more than their situation so they should be able to transcend the situation and stay committed to their beliefs. 

The attitudes that Sartre shared in his essay forces us to think about the manner in which we live. Initially, society seems to be guilty of stripping freedom away from the people, and then forcing them to obey laws in order to keep their freedom. In fact, it may seem quite ironic how we are rewarded with freedom, which is something inherently ours, for giving up a certain level of our autonomy. However, this outlook on society in freedom is not accurate. Since freedom is something that is inherently ours and essential to our existence; it cannot be stripped away from us by external forces or authority. However, as members of society, we agree to accept some limitations placed on our freedom. For example, we agree to obey the laws of society as a means to maintain order in our lives and fulfill our potential as social creatures. However, we do not lose our freedom because everyone has the ability to break the law. The fact that we are still capable of committing terrible acts but choose not to proves that we still maintain our freedom. 

However, one would have to face the consequences of committing any terrible and unlawful acts. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between the consequences of an act and freedom. People have the freedom to commit any acts but they may not be successful or satisfied with the consequences, but this does not mean they do not have the freedom to commit an act. The German occupation placed limitations on people’s freedom that conflicted with their rights and beliefs. At this point, it becomes a clear case of oppression as opposed to society maintaining order. During peaceful times, it is not obvious if something is lacking in the manner they live their lives but during oppressive circumstances, it becomes very apparent. Once, it becomes apparent that their lives are not to be lived in the way that it is supposed to be, the urge to fight for their lives materializes and it results in a strength that ultimately empowers them to exercise their freedom. The absolute freedom that they experience under the regime is one that was born out of the shackles that they were bound to. 

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien, Hamish Hamilton, 1955, pp. 3-119.  

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Republic of Silence.” Lettres françaises, 1944, pp. 1-7.

An Analysis of Ambiguity in Humans

by Sanjana Sankaran, November 12, 2021

The existentialist philosopher Simone De Beauvoir explained in her book titled, The Ethics of Ambiguity, why humans are ambiguous creatures. Beauvoir first proclaims that humans have felt the ambiguity of the states of life and death for a long time. However, even if people recognize the ambiguity of life and understand that as humans we will all die, they eliminate ambiguity by proclaiming religious immortality, and by saying one should become pure internally and externally (Beauvoir 7). As an advocate for women’s rights and human rights, she believed that in order for people to achieve a sense of freedom they must recognize and appreciate the ambiguity. I will further analyze the importance of ambiguity of life and why Beauvoir’s assessment of the human condition as fundamentally ambiguous is correct. 

After recognizing the concept of ambiguity, Beauvoir then differentiates between the two main types: fundamental ambiguity and the simpler ambiguity.  The fundamental ambiguity of the human experience has two parts: the first being that humans are free, we have the ability to think about the world (consciousness), and we can decide how we wish to act and have a private life (internal) (Lecture Notes 11/9/2020). This knowledge gives us strength and power to act (Beauvoir 8). The second part contradicts the first by stating that we are not free because humans cannot escape death in any way. Humans, in many ways, are objects by which external forces can act, so we therefore also have an external existence that cannot be controlled. The simpler ambiguity also has two parts: one is factual and deals with our bodily existence, while the other is free and deals without conscious existence (Lecture Notes, 11/9/2020). Again, philosophers have been dishonest about the ambiguity of life in two ways; they either deny its existence or they disparage it and deem it as negligible to understand and recognize. So, in this process, their style of ethics try to assert one of the ideas of this dualism of life, complete freedom, and determinism, where all your actions have already been determined and you have no control (Lecture Notes, 11/9/2020). 

Ambiguity is extremely important to Beauvoir’s style of ethics because she argues that the concept of ethics itself only makes sense within the context of ambiguous creatures like humans. She states that ethics is brought about by the tension of what is and what ought to be. ‘What is’ is the reality of a situation, such as “there is social injustice.” ‘What ought’ is how things should be –  our opinion –  such as “there should not be social injustice”. She argues therefore that ethics becomes valid when we recognize the ambiguity between what we are and what we could and should be (Lecture Notes 11/9/2020). Beauvoir’s ethics is the ethics of freedom for humanity, which she claims is the source and goal of all ethics. Freedom is what lets humans express meaning and value about certain things and thus must be willed because humans are ambiguous. To will freedom, humans must first recognize the ambiguity instead of denying it to open up their future and keep the ability to act in multiple ways (Lecture Notes 11/11/2020). 

The human condition is fundamentally ambiguous for three main reasons: we cannot escape death,  there is freedom in the uncertain or ambiguous and, lastly, humans live in constant doubt. Humans cannot escape death; philosophers and other thinkers have tried to escape death by arguing that it does not matter what we do in life as long as we end up pure enough to be in heaven. The same goes for religions that discuss reincarnation; however, we live it does not matter because we will be reincarnated. However, as Beauvoir states, the ends do not always justify the means, nor should one be focused on the means and forget about the end. In the first case, when people ignore the means to achieve their goal, they will commit atrocities to get there (Lecture Notes 12/2/2020). For example, in the case of the serious man, they find a single value the absolute and will become a slave to this value, and find everything else as unimportant. This ultimately results in a fascist regime, cult followers, and other heinous crimes against humanity. The serious man fails to recognize the ambiguity in human existence and that humans are free to set up their own values and not blindly follow the values of others (Lecture Notes 11/16/2020). Nietzsche, one of the fundamental philosophers of the existentialist movement, explains the avoidance of death as an end to asceticism – humans will endure severe self-discipline, abstinence, or a denial of our own enjoyments in favor of the spiritual world, a kingdom of God. He argues that humans have used this to endure suffering under the pretense that it can give life meaning. However, Nietzsche wonders how to avoid ascetic ideals without falling into the trap of nihilism (Lecture Notes 11/2/2020). “The ascetic ideal has an aim – this goal is, putting it generally, that all the other interests of human life should, measured by its standard, appear petty and narrow” (Nietzsche Essay 3 Section 23). Asceticism allows for ethics of certainty, not ambiguity; in doing so traps them, and restricts their future. The ascetic ideals, when taken advantage of by cult leaders and tyrants, are often used as a method of oppression. The goal of human life is freedom, not the ascetic ideal. As Beauvoir states, this is achieved by humans having to create their own values, constantly living in doubt, and in the process, gaining genuine freedom. Genuine freedom is something humans have to produce on their  own; we must will it ourselves (Lecture Notes 11/9/2020). As Nietzsche states, “Man, the bravest animal and the one most inured to suffering, does not repudiate suffering in itself: he wills it, he even seeks it out, provided that he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering” (Nietzsche Essay 3 Section 28). Ambiguity states that life has the ability to be meaningful; however, humans must make life meaningful. Humans have made life meaningful by choosing to stand up for the oppressed and not just assuming an existing value system; they have made it meaningful by protesting injustice and changing unjust laws. They may suffer while standing up for the oppressed as Nietzsche states, but there is a greater purpose for it, and that is freedom. 

Life is uncertain, and acknowledging this uncertainty opens up our future and allows us to be free. When humans follow ethics of certainty instead of uncertainty, they leave themselves in an echo chamber where they may become narcissistic, brainwashed, and tyrannical. If humans choose freedom they must live in this ambiguity, as many of us do. Humans live in a constant state of doubt, questioning what is right and wrong, seeking advice from others, and learning from different resources (Lecture Notes 12/2/2020). This doubt is  why humans read books – to learn more about the world they live in. Ethics can therefore not tell us exactly what to do, for this would be ethics of certainty; one must determine right from wrong while making decisions as they question value systems already in place. Those who reject the fundamental ambiguity are those who do not reject the previous value systems. According to Nietzsche, the value systems in place are the aristocratic value system and the slave value system. The aristocratic system is one where good is associated with characteristics of nobility, and bad is associated with characteristics of common people, or the minority. The slave value system was developed from the original system as ressentiment or resentment, causing an inversion of values; good is only derived by comparison to the aristocrats and evil is a term of vilification where it represents narcissism, racism, and so on (Lecture Notes 10/19/2020). Nietzsche states that both the aristocratic value system ‘good and bad’ and the slave value system ‘good and evil’  have existed in our society since the aristocratic times; however, humans must question the values already present (Lecture Notes 10/21/2020). Beauvoir goes on to state that, “an ethics of ambiguity will be one which will refuse to deny a priori that separate existants can, at the same time, be bound to each other, that their individual freedoms can forge laws valid for all” (Beauvoir 18). In other words, the ethics of ambiguity can only exist when people acknowledge the separation that exists between humans, especially of different minority groups. By acknowledging the imbalance that exists, all humans of separate groups have the ability to develop a new value system where there is freedom for all.   

We do not live in the future, and we cannot wait for it; the future is created. In the present, we make choices as we live in a state of doubt that builds a better future for others. This is shown in politics all the time (Lecture Notes 12/2/2020). For example, in the state of this pandemic, people in the present should stay at home and make the decision in the present to protect themselves and others, in order to build a future where COVID is no longer a major concern. Over the summer as people increasingly doubted the structure of our governmental system, people intervened and criticized the justice system, standing up for black lives. This doubt of the certainty that existed allows for freedom in the future. Beauvoir elaborates, “one must attempt to judge the chances of success that are involved in a certain sacrifice; but at the beginning, this judgment will always be doubtful […]” (Beauvoir 148). Choices in the present must be made by doubting the chances of success in the beginning. When people assume the world to go a certain way, this leads to events of destruction and oppression with Nazi Germany being a key example.  Hitler, in this case, is a serious man, who took a value that already existed, did not doubt it, and oppressed many. Those who questioned his assumptions are those who accepted the concept of ambiguity. 

In conclusion, Beauvoir was correct, humans are fundamentally ambiguous creatures because death is inescapable, even through religious means. Life will end at any time, and we live in this uncertainty and create a sense of meaning on our own. Humans live in constant doubt making dynamic choices in the situation that they are currently in while deciding how to create a better future. This is how humans live life to the fullest and by recognizing this we are free, but not from circumstances out of our control.

References/Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Ethics of Ambiguity: Pour Une Morale De L’ambiguïté. Translated by Bernard Frechtman, Open Road Integrated Media, 2018.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 9 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 11 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 16 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 2 Dec. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “On the Geneology of Morals.” Philosophy 104. 19 Oct. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “On the Geneology of Morals.” Philosophy 104. 2 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “On the Geneology of Morals.” Philosophy 104. 21 Oct. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Nietzsche, Fredrich. “On the Genealogy of Morals (A Modernized Translation with a New Introduction and Biography).” Edited by Bill Chapko. Translated by Horace B. Samuel, 2010.

Can Lying Ever Be Justified?

by Ayesha Azeem, October 29, 2021

As the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant once asserted, “there is nothing it is possible to think of anywhere in the world, or indeed anything at all outside it, that can be held to be good without limitation, excepting only a good will” (Kant 9). Kantianism focuses on motives rather than consequences. Kant introduces the idea of a categorical imperative, an absolute rule of conduct that cannot have any exceptions and must be followed regardless of our desires; any action against this is immoral. Kant uses the categorical imperative to support his belief that it is immoral to lie; if we lie, we make ourselves the “exception” to the universal moral law, holding ourselves in a different standard than everyone else. Though it is easy to deem an action absolutely immoral, this is impossible due to the fact that not everyone’s moral conduct is the same, and there will always be rightful exceptions to any “universal law” proposed. 

Kant supports that lying is immoral with a famous situation: if a murderer knocks on your door, asking for your friend, it is your moral duty to tell the truth and expose your friend to the murderer. Kant argues that if we choose to lie, even if it was to save a friend from murder, we would violate the categorical imperative, an immoral act. However, the morals of lying are not as black and white as Kant wants them to be. Though lying is sinful in most cultures, one needs to consider the circumstances in which lying may be better. Lying may prevent a situation from becoming worse – in Kant’s example, lying would actually help your friend survive. Rather than ruling lying as absolutely immoral, it is important to compare one’s options and determine which would be beneficial for the majority. For example, during the Holocaust, a situation similar to Kant’s famous example was experienced by many Jewish refugees and the heroes who courageously hid them from torture. If they had followed Kant’s philosophy, they would have surrendered the Jewish refugees to the Nazis, adding to the brutally inflicted crimes against humanity. The moral guilt resulting from being an accessory to murder is far worse than the guilt accompanying the decision to lie; in situations like these, lying may be more moral, and thus should not be ruled out completely. 

Though Kant is right in that we should not make exceptions for ourselves, moral decision-making is not as straightforward enough to have universal laws because one’s sense of morality may be different from another person’s. This holds true especially when one considers how influential a person’s culture is on their moral reasoning. Kant’s ethical theory of deontology is primarily concerned with one’s intentions – the actual consequences of the action don’t matter. Though lying should be considered morally wrong, exceptions should be rightfully made when the motive is genuinely benevolent. This is seen in Lulu Wang’s movie The Farewell (2019) when a family hides the truth about their grandmother’s cancer diagnosis from her to ensure that her last days are filled with only happiness. The family visits their Nai Nai, the Chinese term for grandmother, after years, with the excuse of a wedding, in order to spend their last moments together. Though Kant would argue that even a situation like this does not justify lying, it is clear that the family’s intentions are pure – they just want to prevent as much emotional pain as possible to Nai Nai. In this case, lying to Nai Nai would not have made the situation worse – she was going to die, whether she knew about it or not. Telling her the truth would not be beneficial, as it would only cause more heartache for everyone. Lying was the more morally correct choice, as Nai Nai actually lived longer than the three months the family expected. This may be because she was not emotionally burdened with her diagnosis; the family made the right choice, even though lying is morally wrong under normal circumstances. 

The Farewell depicts how our culture often influences the choices we make. The movie is mostly set in the point-of-view of Billi, a Chinese-American woman morally conflicted between two cultures, Chinese and American, each promoting different sets of values. When she travels to China to say her farewell, Billi often questions her family’s choices. In one scene, Billi asks her parents why they are keeping the diagnosis a secret. Billi, who has lived most of her life in America, does not understand how the family is so willing to lie – she worries that Nai Nai may have unfinished business that needs attending to before her death. Billi’s mother sternly says, “Chinese people have a saying: when people get cancer, they die. But it’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear” (The Farewell). This is a Chinese tradition that has been passed down through generations – Nai Nai lied to her husband about his diagnosis until he was on his deathbed. The reasoning behind this was so that he would not be plagued by the worry of leaving his family behind. 

When Billi expresses her hesitancy in lying, saying that this would not be acceptable in America, her aunt reminds her that they are in China, where morals are different. In some cultures, we are taught not to question the legitimacy of traditions. For example, South Asian culture often forces “compromising,” especially on women, during a marriage. This began with the notion that the couple should communicate effectively to move their marriage forward. Over generations, however, the idea of compromising has instead led to many women suffering through domestic violence due to fear of societal backlash if they go through with a divorce. South Asian culture often blames the woman if there is a divorce between a couple, claiming that it was her fault for failing to compromise. Parents still teach their daughters to tolerate any “obstacles” (though domestic abuse should not be considered an obstacle, but a physically and physiologically scarring reason to leave) during their marriage. Mothers who have suffered through trauma throughout their marriage and fail to get a divorce tell their daughters to also “compromise.” While this has been ingrained in South Asian culture for generations, this does not mean it is morally correct. 

To establish a strong moral foundation, we must think about the moral reasoning behind our decisions, and why we believe we made the right choice, regardless of what our culture may preach. Though lying may be immoral, context is always needed before we can deem a choice to be moral, which Kant fails to account for.

References/Works Cited

The Farewell. Directed by Lulu Wang, Big Beach Films, 2019.

Kant, Immanuel, et al. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Oxford University Press, 2019.