Luminous realm of values

… every grown human is individually responsible for its decisions and actions. No excuses, no absolutions, and no choice. No fence-sitting either. Even inaction is a decision.


Christopher Hitchens used to tell a story. A good natured but stupid ‘nature’ class teacher, Mrs Jean Watts, had one day ventured to explain that grass and leaves were green as god’s gift to mankind. He paraphrased her: ‘This is an excellent thing and proof of the glory of god, because he could have made vegetation orange or red, something that would clash with our eyes, whereas green is the most restful colour for our eyes!’ Nine-year-old Hitchens concluded: ‘That’s bullshit!’ Bang. Done. The Eureka moment from which he extrapolated all the other idiocies that flow from humans presuming to speak for god.

For me the matter was less certain and more complex, but no less fundamental. And it applies much more widely than just to matters of religious authority proper. The purview is all human reasoning.

Let’s take a detour via Jean Paul Sartre’s 1946 lecture, ‘Existentialism and Humanism’, which some have argued should have been translated as ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’. The distinction is not as inconsequential as it may seem. The translation of this lecture from the French by Philip Mairet contains the sentence: ‘Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse.’ A sentence that, when considered carefully, is not just profound, but one of the most elegant literary renditions of any idea in the modern era. In fact, it was such a perfect phrasing that I wondered whether there had been a mistranslation of ‘numinous’ for ‘luminous’. I had to check various sources, but in those I can lay my hands on it is at least a universal mistake, if it is a mistake at all.

What would be the difference in meaning? The sentence with ‘luminous’ is elegant and borders on the brilliant. It evokes the visual of a brightly illuminated, and illuminating, path of values that is in fact a fantasy across literary, ethical, and æsthetic dimensions. Is there any confusion about Sartre’s meaning? Not to me, after almost thirty years of contemplating it, but I suspect that a large and growing number of people will have trouble with this because it has no literal interpretation that makes sense. You have to be able to think in abstract and unfixed meanings across multiple topics, stretching from history to philosophy, and from politics to religion. It is not at all amenable to a reductionist determinism that seeks to pin down an inherent and atomically reducible, precise meaning contained in the words. As if the words could stand alone and apart from intention and audience.

For fundamentalist audiences, however, the word ‘numinous’ would be more fortunate because it restricts meaning to theologically defined values. That meaning would be more limited than any intention one might derive from ‘luminous’, which can attach to any paradigm being proposed as a bright and shining example that illuminates human thinking on ethics and moral action. How one can explain this profound difference to the intellectually stunted people who cannot think figuratively is not a problem I can address, let alone resolve. However, it does mean that such people will never understand fully what it is to be human, and to be humanist. That demographic includes a surprisingly large cohort of nominally educated people who would shrink away from considering themselves the fundamentalist literalists they are.

This is not a game of semantics. The different meanings being considered are important in understanding Sartre’s description of mankind, which he argues is ‘forlorn’, as if abandoned by a higher authority it invented, and therefore without choice about reaching judgements and making decisions for which it must accept absolute responsibility. Translate that to individuals: every grown human is individually responsible for its decisions and actions. No excuses, no absolutions, and no choice. No fence-sitting either. Even inaction is a decision.

That was my childhood realisation. It wasn’t a single event or realisation, like that of Hitchens’s ‘bullshit’ moment, but a progressive, growing awareness of the unreliability of authority figures to act in a manner deserving of emulation or respect. I watched, as a child, the ritual humiliation of other children, sometimes also my own, and wondered why it was necessary to cruelly and sadistically pursue such powerless agents over many quite petty matters, apparently just to make them cry or watch the mounting terror widen their eyes and turn their faces pale. It is a refined sort of bastardry that seems particularly ingrained in Protestant conceptions of righteousness, but has spread into all sorts of other authority domains. Orwell talked about it spellbindingly in a recollection of his schooldays, ‘Such, such were the joys’.

As a powerless child I was unable to deliver a clip around the ear for the adults who were thus abusing children; that came only years later. So I was left to consider how I would have acted, in each instance, to attain reasonable outcomes sans tears or trauma. I was moved, in my own head, to also come up with the justifications for why my methods were better, imagining how I would argue my causes with the grown-ups.

I have not ever found anything like an illuminated path, or any particularly brilliant insights into any system or formula from which humanist values can be derived. I am tempted to conclude that such a simple-minded approach is precisely what we call religion, ecclesiastical and secular. It has always been hard work to consider each event that requires ethical judgement as separate from any other, and to analyse every dynamic of the specific context individually. Every time. That is what I think is ethics and moral action: intellectual effort, not deference to predetermined, fixed rules. Deference is the opposite of ethics. It is reliance on a codex, or algorithm, to reduce all complexity to meaninglessness, and to apply a predetermined judgement, like a wrecking ball, regardless of its moral character or consequences.

Looking again at the Sartrean luminous realm of values, it becomes possible to see the vast bulk of reductionist determinists banishing humanism with the darkness of a kind of anti-ethics that is the unthinking reliance on uncritically adopted, and therefore infinitely corrupt rules. In that darkness we find the specks of light that are people who actually do think, and who do make an effort to analyse, form judgements, and act on them. They become, in that conception, the specks of starlight that prevent an otherwise dark universe from being completely black and void.


The following is an interchange on a Google Plus discussion thread on the re-post of this essay.


I read this and frankly several things bothers bother me.

  1. Re-interpreting Sartre’s words in such a way that things hinge on use of luminous vs. numinous in English. Sartre was extremely capable with language and knew which words he was choosing.
  2. As best as I can tell the 1946 conference the paper was “Existentialism is a Humanism”: L’existentialisme est un Humanisme (Texte intégral de la conférence see: not “Existentialism and Humanism” although a minor point, but already a change.
  3. If indeed the translation by Mairet you refer to is based on the original text then “luminous” is introduced by the translator, whose French was infinitely better than mine. Nevertheless it does not appear in Sartre’s text. I am cautious about getting too far away from the original to build an essay, esp. if it is centered on single words, e.g. “luminous” vs “numinous”.
  4. Here is a translated section by Mairet

    For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism ‘:’ man is free, man is freedom. Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimise our behaviour. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. ‘:’ We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free.

    [] (I had to replace some dashes with colons, because of the markup language possibly interpreting that as a strikethrough)

    the corresponding French original is:

    Si, en effet, l’existence précède l’essence, on ne pourra jamais expliquer par référence à une nature humaine donnée et figée ; autrement dit, il n’y a pas de déterminisme, l’homme est libre, l’homme est liberté. Si, d’autre part, Dieu n’existe pas, nous ne trouvons pas en face de nous des valeurs ou des ordres qui légitimeront notre conduite. Ainsi, nous n’avons ni derrière nous, ni devant nous, dans le domaine numineux des valeurs, des justifications ou des excuses. Nous sommes seuls, sans excuses. C’est ce que j’exprimerai en disant que l’homme est condamné à être libre.

  5. All of the above are minor. The essay/blog is indeed a treat compared to cat posts. You clearly have an extremely bright intellect. I would just let things go except for point 5.
  6. What truly bothers me is the tone. I don’t know if you intended this or I’m misreading it Peter, but several passages come across to me as if you were enlightened and other people intellectual cripples.

This section comes across as if you were enlightened and other people not, because they can’t think properly.

… Is there any confusion about Sartre’s meaning? Not to me, but I suspect that a large and growing number of people will have trouble with this because it has no literal interpretation that makes sense. You have to be able to think in abstract and unfixed meanings across multiple topics, stretching from history to philosophy, and from politics to religion ….

Or this section:

How one can explain this profound difference to the intellectually stunted people who cannot think figuratively is not a problem I can address, let alone resolve. However, it does mean that such people will never understand fully what it is to be human, and to be humanist. That demographic includes a surprisingly large cohort of nominally educated people who would shrink away from considering themselves the fundamentalist literalists they are.

I don’t think any of this is helpful or necessary to the points, which I took away from your writing. I certainly agree with you on the essence of Sartre’s essays and works: every grown human is individually responsible for its decisions and actions. No excuses, no absolutions, and no choice. No fence-sitting either. Even inaction is a decision.

I applied this choice here as well. To read the essay and not comment on it would have been a choice for inaction. I decided all things considered that since I had the time a response would be better. (“having time” could be a topic in its own right)

Finally, thank you for making intellectual posts on GPlus. It certainly elevates the discourse even if I may have had some differences of opinion on this particular piece.

My response:

That you are bothered by the post probably just means you understand enough of it to know I am disturbed by trends in contemporary thinking, or the lack of it. That’s me being an elitist again, right? Maybe so. So let me begin there, rather than in the order of your own points.

You are quite correct to discern in what I wrote a hostility aimed at people who choose not to think. I am not talking about people who cannot, by dint of hereditary cretinism, or people who choose to think differently in an active, informed sense.

A particular source of frustration for me are people who propose ecclesiastical and secular theologies that entail some negative effect on my own life; crudely drawn examples of this might include Catholic objections to abortion or stem cell research, communist objections to striving for an improvement in my individual circumstances, or fascist objections to what I may read or talk about. These kinds of doctrinaire interpositions on the lives of others may seem trivial, but they are not. We find in them the daily incidences of racism and sexism that blight our notionally enlightened Western societies. Worse, added to these is also the neo-Stalinist tendency towards politically correct witch-hunting, which cloaks its tyrannical intent in supposedly virtuous intentions, but functions almost solely to silence, censure, and victimise free thought and speech.

Worst of all, however, is a form of tyrannical technical rationality, elevated to an almost reverential but undeserved dominance in Western discourse by the phenomenal material success of Silicon Valley and its offshoots world-wide. It is a rationality that dismisses and devalues humanism in favour of a purely mathematical conception of all things as engineering problems to be resolved with engineering solutions. I regard this kind of rationality as no less religious than the theologies of ecclesiastical and secular faiths. And it is the bone-headed adherents of that latter faith who are my particular targets in the essay, as they have been in some others I have written. They are the ones who are today the most menacing proponents of a doctrine of fundamentalist literalism and anti-intellectualism that rejects humanism, embraces a corrosive kind of libertarian disregard for social contract, for people less privileged than themselves, and that devalues all discussion that has no mathematical and bounded linear process to it.

[This is a complicated series of interlocking topics which is not done justice by my reply here. Nevertheless I have been writing about it for some time. Recent examples include my essays on technical rationality, discussions of racism, epistemic vigilance, intelligence turned to stupidity, and ontological closure. All of these can be found on Google Plus as well, but are paradoxically harder to find quickly than on my own site.]

For the time being allow me to call the people I regard as technical rationalists just ‘technocrats’. If your ambit is to rebuke me for suggesting that they are not enlightened, but that I am, you are partly correct. Enlightenment is not a closed and finite achievement, the way technocrats conceive of an engineering problem and its solution. Instead it requires the continuous and open-ended thinking I tried to describe in the essay. However, insofar as the technocrats are contemptuous of thinking about anything at all that cannot be reduced to a mechanical artifice, I am contemptuous of their clockwork universe doctrine. And doctrine it is. A clockwork requires design and manufacture, but produces no output not embedded in that design and manufacture. In that sense it is the old creationist canard again, dressed up in the moth-eaten clothes of the 18th century Enlightenment period, but unchanged since that time.

The technocrats are not content with pursuing a particular perspective. They impose that perspective on the world in the form of algorithm-driven ‘solutioneering’ and the abrasively arrogant indifference to human values that flow from it. The most obvious examples are IT corporations collaborating in a surveillance culture, in tax evasion and the further immiseration of already poor sections of the population, in astonishingly racist and sexist workforce elitism, and in the willful pursuit of non-technical ignorance (meaning a material and intellectual devaluation of those of the humanities not able to be monetised and piped into the brain via iPod earphones).

There is another side to your wagging finger, though, Steven. Why would it be wrong of me to imply that I do think at an elite level? Is it because it’s immodest? Is it because humility is some kind of virtue to which I do not pay sufficient homage? Should I pretend not to see the things I do? What is the inherent virtue in not pointing at controversial topics that may upset some people?

A little background, for you, since you took the trouble to unpick my reasoning (itself already an intellectual exercise, the persistence in which may eventually lead to the auto-da-fé at which you will be the gurst of honour, and which is still the preferred form of welcoming intellectuals on the internet). I am well educated, both formally (three university degrees, including a master’s in IT from which I graduated last month) and informally, through wide and continuous reading and debate. I owe no apology for that, or the fact that I do consider complex and inherently controversial topics. I make no apology at all for any of my thinking or writing: it is my birthright as a member of my culture and civilization. Millions fought and died for such rights, whioch include those not to be silenced or prevented from political action (of which my essays are an integral part, but most of which is quite invisible to you). But these are rights that will disappear when enough people cease to exercise and demand them, just the way, for instance, that human rights for women in the USA are being rolled back by reactionaries because too many decent people have disengaged from politics there.

In that sense I disagree entirely about your contentions about helpfulness or necessity. It was never my intention not to confront technocrats, and the entire essay is a product of that intention. Therefore it was absolutely necessary to make the remarks that you found unsettling.

I was, at one time, intimidated by the brutal discourtesy of those who sought, and continue to seek, that all discussion is conducted by careful excision of all potential controversy, and the dumbing down of all intellect until everyone can understand without the effort of thought at all. That, to me, is fundamentalist religion in its coarsest guise. I am today pretty certain that this is a barbarian impulse to which I have no reason to surrender, and i weould regard any demand to do so on grounds of courtesy to be inherently discourteous to me.

I am not just an armchair pontificator. Everything I concern myself with has direct and significant impacts on the way Western political economy is again being pulled towards totalitarianism. Western culture and society is my culture and society. What would be at all wrong with my attempt to defend and strengthen it in a way I conceive of as right and just? Indeed, Steven, why should I not aim to have all debate conducted at a sophisticated, educated, insightful, and therefore inherently controversial level? Is that not how all viewpoints, not just mine, either become stronger, or are discarded for their flaws?

Nor have I ever been afraid to get my hands dirty, whether this be in the service of my country, or putting up my fists to defend myself against people who demand this contest as proof of worthiness. I may qualify, by credentials, to be a nerd, but I am not the caricature presented in The Big Bang Theory, nor in the pusillanimous technology-oriented whimperings that comprise most technocrat online posts or commentary (the kind that reduces human existence to gadget porn and the pursuit of the new as if the old was now without value). In short, Steven, I assert that I have earnt my right to speak my mind, and I have never yet denied that everything I say is fully contestable. I have even been known to change my mind when presented with convincing counter-arguments.

Not that you suggested it, but I think it’s an associated idea worth expressing: I have zero sympathy for the notion that long-form social media posts are devalued somehow by the popularity of the alphabet flatulence enforced by a character limit, such as that imposed by design on Twitter, or by the intellectual laziness of some who defend their indolence with arguments about quality, not quantity, but without having taken the time to arrive at a valid conclusion rather than a smartarse comment. Some thoughts are not able to be condensed, and do actually require effort to engage with.

In the light of the preceding paragraphs, then, my intention is not some emasculated and quietist contemplation; that wouldn’t be worth the trouble to transcribe. It is to oppose the dumbing down of my culture and society by technocratic luddites who are willfully ignorant in the face of access to all the world’s knowledge, and who seek to turn human society into an unthinking consumerist dystopia that caters solely to privileged white kids. Even then only for the male white kids, most of whom still regard women as just inconvenient intrusions when they do not serve merely as ‘pumps’ or ‘squeezes’. This is not my isolated and delusional perception. The racist and sexist tendencies of STEM-focused careers is an increasingly uncomfortable topic in the USA and Europe. Make no mistake, Steven, in their anti-humanist striving, these technocrats are closely aligned with religious fundamentalists, and the balefully destructive libertarian plutocrats who are working hard to tear apart America and the Eurozone. They may not agree in words, but they surely do in their actions (and inactions). That, too, is my point about not taking seriously anyone who insists on a delusional reality based on a literalism that does not bear the scrutiny of observation. Just because some say they are not xenophobic, racist, sexist, narrow-minded gits doesn’t make that true. If their actions, and the consequences of those actions, say otherwise, they are exactly those things. As such, people who identify with, or advance the technocratic and anti-humanist conception of how life should be ordered, will be at the sharp point of my pen and political action for as long as I can still do that, or until they desist. In some senses, I think, anyone who feels slighted by what I wrote might have identified themselves as justifiable targets for my scorn, and, hopefully, the scorn of thinking people everywhere.

[A point made at greater length elsewhere in my writings which I insert here to clarify my position on racism and sexism: I am not at all pious or politically correct about my views. I am motivated by the observation that when my fellow citizens, and humans everywhere, are stripped of rights I take for granted or demand, that stripping away is an immediate threat to me too, because it means my own rights become as tenuous and arbitrary as those that have been alienated from other people.]

About Sartre specifically, I have been studying his work, and that one lecture in specific, for almost thirty years now. I don’t come to it lightly, as some Wikipedia-misinformed know-it-all (see, for example, my long commentary on the lecture itself). Moreover, I see it in the context of an intellectual progression (see, for example, my lens of insanity essay), and therefore not as some new theology or exclusive belief system. But as a consideration of one tiny aspect of the lecture as it applies to some of my recent thinking about contemporary developments.

As for the semantics about luminous and numinous, I think it is more fundamentally indicative of my point than you give it credit for. It illustrates, in microcosm, the idiocy of some technical rationalists in dumbing down discourse to solely technical logics. Imagine them, then, responding to Sartre by whipping out their slide rules to calculate the luminosity of values, with the latter being conceived of as known economic quantities; in fact, imagine them responding to the preceding by protesting that luminosity is not measured with slide rules, which they don’t use in any event. Yet it is with their figurative slide rules these technocrats seek to dehumanise the world, applying cold logics to human concerns that require warm intellect. It is the potential to highlight a way of thinking that requires actual thought, not just deference to formulæ and method, which drove me to contemplate what a huge difference there is in the meaning, depending on which word is considered. Numinous leaves us with a much narrower parameter about a rejection of ecclesiastical doctrine only, and it makes of that sentence an aridly dry observation, where luminous gives it a literary dimension that elevates it to a status transcending the moment of Sartre’s specific circumstances (which were already inherently complex in that he was an atheist Catholic communist – unpack that bundle of paradox, if you like).

In some senses, too, it matters little whether Sartre intended one or the other meaning. There has been no really controversial disagreement about the translation, or we would see it reflected in the mountains of English-language literature about Sartre since 1946. What matters is the contemplation of the semantic difference in the context of contemporary developments. What matters is the moment at which you and I engaged with some serious thinking against all the odds stacked up against such behaviour in social media platforms.