Aufhebung & Cynicism: Taxi Driver and the Morality of Emancipation

This post began as a reflection on Taxi Driver, then took on a greater scale.

Take a moment and think about this word: cynical. It seems to me the longer you think about it, the less clear your idea about its meaning. What is a cynic? How exactly would you describe the state of mind of someone being cynical? Is it about having a negative outlook on life, about looking for elements to critique, about highlighting the shortcomings and exacerbating them, and so on? But if everything is negative, why bother critiquing it or highlighting its shortcoming?.. It seems somewhat counter-productive or… contradictory.

It also sounds weirder the more you say it: “cynical”. Thankfully, the explanation for that is more straightforward: the word comes for the Greek word Κυνόσαργες (Kunósarges), first home of the Cynic school of philosophy in Athens. A well-known rep of that school is Diogenes, whose famous stories include using a lamp in daylight “looking for a man” (Wikipedia explains that “In his view, the unreasoning behavior of the people around him meant that they did not qualify as men”) and his meeting with Alexander the Great.

Story goes that Alexander had a very good opinion of himself and considered himself powerful, and while visiting Corinth (Diogenes had been captured by slavers and transported there) wanted to visit Diogenes who had a reputation for his very unusual way of life. Alexander found him and…

“While Diogenes was relaxing in the morning sunlight, Alexander, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, asked if there was any favor he might do for him. Diogenes replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’ Alexander then declared, ‘If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.’ ‘If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes,’ Diogenes replied. In another account of the conversation, Alexander found the philosopher looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, ‘I am searching for the bones of your father but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.”

Diogenes’ Wikipedia page

The lesson here is that it isn’t easy to qualify cynicism. Far from it being simply, as we might think in our times, a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, it begs a rather different question: the question of virtue, of what is good and its contrary. The merit of cynicism is to acutely raise this question through rather clownish behaviors and “comebacks”, with a general purview of criticizing society as “unreasonable” or “unnatural” (for example, seeing bowls as unnecessary baggage when we can drink from our cupped hands).

Since the Greeks, cynicism has come a long way, not only becoming what it is commonly known as, but in philosophy it is a direct forerunner of Stoicism, and more largely of the notion of virtue itself. Said otherwise, the present use and meaning of virtue (as well as its notable absence in many cases) is an expression of the evolution of philosophical cynicism: cynicism has been “lifted” into a modern context and has acquired a modern meaning, while retaining its legacy and remnants of its past meanings.

This allows us to introduce our other important concept of today: Aufhebung. Also known in English as sublation, it is a contribution of the Hegelian tradition which roughly pertains to the way in which things change and do not. That is to say, things change but always keep with them traces of the past which inform and give form to their present existence. In social contexts, for example, even the most violent changes or “revolutions” give rise to systems of law and government which, while different from the past, are strongly colored by the past. To give it a properly Hegelian twist, it’s that there’s a very intimate and complex relationship between Being (the present) and Non-Being (the past, the future) that’s mediated by Becoming. Aufhebung is the Being become of Non-Being: it carries within it the traces of the past and the potentials of the future.

The argument that I wish to submit to the judgment of your reason is the following: the public, free and immensely rich inheritance we have received from centuries of philosophy is neither idle talk, nor useless, nor powerless; concepts such as cynicism and aufhebung empower us to understand reality and, so doing, allow us to act with direction and energy. I want to demonstrate this by applying these two concepts first to a work of fiction (Taxi Driver), then to a current event of global proportions (the war in Ukraine). I hope to conclude with the suggestion that further study of these concepts (among others) can bring humanity and society towards peace, prosperity and a clearer understanding of the meaning of collective good.

Taxi Driver came out in 1976, directed by M. Scorsese, written by P. Schrader and starring R. De Niro. Controversial in its time, and despite having potentially inspired a real-life attempt of assassination of President R. Reagan, it has remained culturally relevant and was selected in 1994 by the US Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry. It’s been analyzed in quite a few literary/script-writing commentaries as well as by S. Zizek in his “Pervert’s Guides” (to Cinema and Ideology).

While not as abstract as Fellini’s 8(1/2) critique of entertainment and compromise, Schrader’s story does take up an uncompromising stance, but this time towards its characters. More precisely, it is uncompromising in its cynicism towards its characters, their motivations and their progression through the narrative. This progression, which can also be described as a kind of aufhebung, is in my view the main strength of the movie’s narrative; when combined to the subtle, implied cynicism of the author to his characters, it results in a satisfying story about multi-faceted personalities making difficult yet somewhat predictable choices. The overall movie respects the viewers intelligence, aims for realism, while also putting in sufficient elements of spectacle and entertainment to keep the viewer engaged. It works and is skillfully crafted, no doubt about it.

The chief line of Schrader’s cynicism in his work is precisely a line that could be taken from the Greeks themselves: to critique those who have such a good opinion of themselves in order to show the hollow character of their appeal to (their own) virtue. Straight from the bat in the first scene, Travis (the main character) applies to the taxi office, boasting his driving record is clean “like his conscience”, having just said before he has trouble sleeping, hence wanting a night job. Already from the start, Schrader puts into question the coherence and reasonability of his characters: if his conscience is so clean, shouldn’t he be sleeping snug nights?

This extends to most of the other characters, at least those who play a prominent enough role: Betsy is intrigued by difference but unwilling to honestly engage with it unless society pre-approves that difference; Palantine preaches to the public and insists that he IS the people, with eloquent statements which reveal his actual alienation from common people (“I have learned more about America from riding in taxicabs than in all the limos in the country”); “Sport” is a classic pimp with pretensions of love and freedom for his prostitute. Indeed, 12-year old Iris aspires to a liberating non-conformism, whether through her current activity or her projected moving to a northern commune, all the while oscillating in the inertia between complaints of insatisfaction to her pimp and eagerness to please her clients.

Finally, the ending itself encapsulates this approach: Travis initially targets Palantine for assassination, but after failing to get close he redirects his “decision to act” against “Sport” and his pimp setup, almost dying in the process. We then see newspaper clippings praising his heroism and a letter from Iris’ parents pathetically thanking him for “saving” their daughter. Thus does Schrader’s cynicism extend to society’s representations of itself, writing being its medium of representation par excellence: its judgments, like its members’, is based on the superficial form of the act, rather than the precise content of it. There is no in-depth judgment or examination, but simply a re-qualification within its predetermined values and understanding, thus acting like an echo chamber.

The most important aspect of this cynical approach is that Schrader does not belittle these characters: he gives plausibility and realism to precisely the contradiction they live out on a daily basis: Betsy really believes in her proximity to difference; Palantine is honest in his auto-description as a champion and representative of the people; “Sport” really does love and need Iris; and Iris is precisely that age where an aspiration to freedom begins while the vulnerability to manipulation persists. Just as the Greek Cynics, Schrader tries to realistically depict the proverbial “search for a man”: he is raising the question of the coherent and virtuous life.

This approach by Schrader is also couched in respect to the characters’ position in the world as well as their progression in the timeline of the movie’s narrative: they are aufgehoben expressions of their place in history. On the one hand, they are part of 1976 New York: junk-filled, gun-ridden, car-adapted, class-diverse, Vietnam-era New York. Just to take Travis’ example, he expresses all of these determinations: the confrontation between his standards of cleanliness (maybe taken from his time in the Marines, maybe from his family upbringing) and the “filth” of the streets (as he calls it) is a constant source of frustration; his position as a cab driver gives his life a form of objectivity defined by cars and the variability of his clients (where guns occasionally make a direct appearance); in his postcard to his parents, he shows how aware he is of their expectations (“making lots of money, going with a girl you’d be proud of”). Even his botched attempt at assassination reveals his incompatible class knowledge when confronted with the knowledge of the dominant class (improvised gun equipment versus organized secret service detail), forcing him to rather find a class-compatible target (the pimp).

On the other hand, they are part of their own story and each subsequent act is directly liable to the influence of a previous one. Travis becomes a gun nut after the combined effect of his colleagues’ connections to a black market gun trader and his client’s fetish of fixing their problems with a magnum. His ambiguous obsession with Palantine (posters of him, watching TV of him, trying to kill him) is directly related to his ambiguous attraction to Betsy: multiple times does he admit to her as well as him that he has no political opinions or knowledge, despite expressing deep support. And his crusade against Iris’ pimp is initiated by her entrance into his cab, but it is exacerbated by the taunts “Sport” throws at him as a “funny guy”, as well as the failure of his attempt against Palantine’s life (as a singular rather than class event). The ultimate expression of this is in the movie’s epilogue, Aufhebung expressing itself as a repeat, but with a difference: Travis returns to his job as a cabbie and meets Betsy again (the repeat), but this time rejects her newfound advances and appears as a fully integrated member of the cabbie group with the nickname “Killer” (the difference). One’s choices and trajectory (an individuals or a society’s) tend to stay within the “grooves” left by previous acts or choices: another way of describing Aufhebung.

Taxi Driver is many other things and can be analysed from many other different perspectives, especially from the viewpoint of cinematographic techniques or of literary plot devices. Here, the aim was rather to demonstrate that the movie, and especially its story and characters, can be understood with regards to a combination of cynicism and aufhebung/sublation. In fact, the combination of these two elements affords such a comprehensive understanding of non-technical aspects of the movie, that one might ask if it shouldn’t be a principal path of analysis, until a more convincing and total one is shown or demonstrated; the gauntlet is thrown down… In any case, this portion serves to show how philosophical tools can wholesomely be used to describe and understand a work of culture. To put it in the terms of the movie itself, cynicism and aufhebung are names that can denote the thing itself, just as Travis insisted to find out Iris’ real name and offered his own name as a means of meeting and entering into relation with her: these concepts allow us to comprehensively understand – no small feat and far from being a given.

The question now is: can we apply this theoretical tool to something going beyond culture and ideas? Can it help us understand more than a movie’s narrative and literary style? To answer, we can try analyzing the ongoing war in Ukraine, a major contemporary event. Russia’s official invasion of Ukraine started already with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and this year of our Lord 2022 they announced a “special military operation” on February 24th. Since then, while a considerable sense of unknown persists by effect of the fog of war, the weapons’ announcements (most by the USA), the economic sanctions and the little territorial progress of the Russian Federation’s troops do give some common understandings and indications of the situation.

And it does turn out that this event is aufgehoben in so many of its determinations. First and most clearly, it is a direct continuation of the military invasion and annexation of Crimea and the Donbass conflict sparked at that moment. Much like in 2014, gas prices at the start of 2022 were at all-time highs and have only gone up since: for a fossil-fuel exporting country such as Russia, the timing was as good now as it was in the past.

But this goes way beyond fuel prices. The whole approach by Russia, as much as we can be aware of it, almost completely reproduces characteristics of past conflicts it has traversed. On the side of direct violence by arms, we see them use outmoded military doctrines harking all the way back to World War 1: heavy and indiscriminate use of artillery with no concern for mobile warfare, direct attack of entrenched and fortified positions, and a leadership so incompetent as to lead to heavy material and personnel losses despite superiority in both categories. On the side of social discourse, its main lines of articulation harken to the justifications of ethnic imperialism that the Soviet Union was the object of in World War 2: ethnic on the one hand because of the auto-assigned mission to “liberate ethnic Russians” living in Ukraine; imperialistic because of Russia’s refusal to grant neighboring countries any auto-determination in the name of “geopolitical interests” and the expansion of NATO which it sees, seemingly, as almost equivalent to full-blown invasion of national lands. And on the side of economic management and direction, Russia is mostly falling back to the ancient and traditional aspiration to autarchy: its attempts for the diversification of its trade partners having fallen flat (with the notable exception of India), it has seen itself forced to try to produce locally and by Russian entities various industries such as fast food (the famous Russian McDonald’s) or keyboard shortages; not to mention that in the face of global climate change, it is doubling down on the most carbon contributing resources of the past century. Every way you turn the phenomenon, you see facets of Russia’s historical legacy strongly determining the way in which it is currently attempting to project global power.

And the same applies to Ukraine. In fact, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is so similar to that of Afghanistan that it is sometimes confusing whether you are thinking of one or the other. Much like Afghanistan’s 1979 rebellion against the Soviet supported government reforms (Saur Revolution), Ukraine as well (Orange Revolution) saw its troubles start with the intense resistance of some of its citizens against their government’s rapprochement with Russia. Fast forward to 2022, and Ukraine is a classic subject of proxy warfare between regional or global powers, much like Vietnam or Afghanistan before it, including its heavy use of partisan and more generally guerrilla-style tactics. Just as Russia is a clear inheritor of past ideologies, so does Ukraine find itself in the echo chamber of Western economic liberalism: its citizens already since 2014 are able to travel visa-free to the European Union (freedom of human capital), which also as recently as two months ago accelerated its integration to it by granting Ukraine candidate status to its system of economic federation where financial austerity and economic deregulation are its stated purposes in the name of freedom of capital flows/freedom of markets. Ukraine’s aufgehoben status in the hands of Western political and economic interests is now all the more compelling whereby it has repeatedly called for and accepted foreign aid from the West which most usually comes under the form of loans from, you will understand, Western banks. This already entrenches it into deeper dependency on Western trade, aid, finance, subsidies etc.: its economy even before Russia’s invasion witnessed of this element whether through the EU acting as its main trade partner, many of its citizens traveling to EU countries (mainly Poland) to work abroad, the market for land being fully opened and independent since July 1st 2021, and its currency’s exchange rates incurring a sever shock to its disfavor (in 2009, 2015 and 2022 respectively, 1 USD traded for 8, 22 and now 37 hryvnias).

Thus, largely speaking, we see both Russia and Ukraine as aufgehoben belligerents of this war: Russia aufgehoben by its historically imperialistic status which it does not accept losing; Ukraine aufgehoben by an increasingly powerful influence of Western-style political and economic interests. Far from the one-sidedness which other propositions (such as Nietzsche-style “Great Man” theories) might entail (ex. this conflict being a metaphorical arm wrestle between Putin and Zelensky), the concept of Aufhebung has helped us identify that, in a country’s major moment of crisis, its form and prosecution eloquently express the socio-economic conditions and transformations of its more or less immediate history. It can also, by this power, inform the exercise of cynicism to which we are about to submit; to put it simply, it provides the immediately factual as well as worked-upon analytical elements that cynicism can use in its effort of demystification: to question as much Ukraine’s “heroical” character of resistance as Russia’s “tyrannical” character of invasion.

The first facet of this question of cynicism is the prima facie consideration of the military invasion itself. On the one hand, Russia’s “tyrannical” character seldom resists scrutiny: while its invasion is certainly against international law, it demonstrates nothing of the power expected of a tyrant: despite having had months of preparation and a position where it quasi-surrounded Ukraine, its progress has been grinding to a standstill and a stalemate. We would have then reason, first, to be cynical about Russia’s “dominance” or imperial ambitions: it has demonstrated, as much in its leadership as in its operational doctrine and state of military material to be in a much poorer situation, having to resort mostly on low-cost solutions (artillery strikes) to pursue the war (and save face). To crown the cynical take of Russia’s status as a “tyrant”, it is all the more eloquent that its bid to prevent its neighbor’s adhesion to NATO has all but confirmed the adhesion of another two of its neighbors (Finland and Sweden): the effectiveness of Russia’s geopolitical action has been at most that of an amateur, and far from any brutal but effective “tyrant”.

On the other hand, Ukraine’s “heroical” resistance has reason to be considered in light of the awesome financial and military support that the West has provided it following the effective invasion by Russia: Congress had already approved US assistance worth roughly 54 billion dollars in May, and it has continued with new announcements since, most lately a 3 billion package for training and equipment of Ukrainian troops; this does not include commitments by other Western countries, which in May added up to an extra 20 billion dollars. If you add it up, until now it means around 77 billion dollars of aid, which is not exclusively military but which compares to the estimated 66 billion dollars Russia spends yearly on its military budget. While certainly having had the backbone to not immediately surrender, Ukraine has benefited from mind-boggling amounts of immediate aid (especially military equipment) which has allowed it to effectively, and not just symbolically resist its neighbor’s aggression.

The cynical analysis becomes all the more valid when considering the context of the energy and resource transfers that predate the conflict: these mechanically determine what is possible for the belligerents and how far the war can go. Take a look at this map, current as of 2021.

Credits: Le Monde Diplo (English edition).

Green countries are energy-independent with little exports, blue countries are somewhat energy-independent with few or no exports and red/orange countries are very energetically self-sufficient but heavily reliant on energy exports. Blues arrows indicate exports of oil and purple arrows exports of gas. Notice Russia’s and Europe deep relation of interdependence: Russia MUST export its resources (not only for income, but because it has limited storage capacity) and Europe MUST import that gas & oil to power its industry and service infrastructure. So while Russia can threaten to cut off gas and Europe can beat the drums of solidarity and support for Ukraine, it cannot do much more than that; instead you see Germany especially tame as it asks for exceptions for Russian turbines stuck in Canada which were under sanctions (which Canada has allowed once it understood its mining sector could benefit of the deal). Despite Germany’s and the rest of Europe’s ambitions to diversify their energy sourcing, their ambition will remain just that because not even the USA can compete with China and Russia’s duopoly on nuclear materials and expertise, and on the liquefied gas front, the US is already exporting everything it can while other countries (Qatar, Egypt, Azerbaijan) are booked for multiple years in the future. Hence the huge price increases in gas in Europe. Ukraine is stuck between the Scylla and Charybdis of international energy production and interdependence.

Observe how this approach by cynicism, that method of searching for reasons of behavior, has conferred upon us a completely new conception of international solidarity: solidarity in words, certainly, between the West and Ukraine’s plight; but even more strongly solidarity in acts between the energy players of the world and their dependents. And speaking of solidarity in words, there is even a type of it between the West and Russia itself: the use of mass media as a tool of domestic policy.

If you are looking for a president with an interest in a show of military force to mitigate his unpopularity, Joe Biden is at least as good a candidate as his counterpart in the Kremlin…

Indeed, the one-sidedness of the media coverage of the conflict from both sides is another form of solidarity that cynicism can justly raise our attention on: on the same day, for the same “event”, compare CNN’s with RT’s takes on the event and observe how some facts are included or left out depending on the viewpoint taken, no matter how “neutral” it might present itself: some facts are always differently presented or accentuated, whether by a lengthier expose on particular facets or by choosing which part or whose speech to quote. And both can be seen as tools of domestic policy promoting state stability as both countries face considerable political instability (Trump and Navalny, as prime examples). And in the face of galloping inflation, all political leaders are quick to pull the “not our fault” trigger, pointing towards the conflict as a scapegoat of legitimacy, while ignoring the systematic decoupling between productivity increases and real wage stagnation in the last 40 years.

Credits: EPI

Conclusion: What is good, the question behind the work of reason

To recap, we’ve tried to show how aufhebung and cynicism offer productive perspectives of analysis for a more systematic and concrete understanding of the world, such as cultural works (Taxi Driver) and historical events (the War in Ukraine). Cynicism, that search for the reason behind human behaviour, is informed by and leads to aufhebung, the conception that a present state and its properties carry within them the full legacy of their past histories and the potentialities of their future. This very inquiry itself bears that weight, as it relies on previous analyses as much as on potential future ones on other cultural works (First Reformed, for example, another Schrader movie written 30+ years after Taxi Driver) or other historical events (how Afghanistan could mirror Ukraine’s situation, or how Hitler’s invasion of Barbarossa shared the same context of trade and agricultural production in relation to the Soviet Union of that time).

What is the endgame of this process of analysis, however? Where does the tandem of cynicism-aufhebung lead us, if not to the status quo and a depressive outlook to the incapacity of societies to veritably progress in the life conditions it offers to its vast majority of people? I strongly believe, and would like to argue, that what is important is what is common to both concepts: the reliance and bringing to the fore of reason. Both aufhebung and cynicism, either implicitly and/or explicitly, rely on the premise of the capacity of reason for analysis and judgment to arrive at their results: aufhebung relies on a patient and comprehensive consideration of historical elements of a situation; cynicism works to establish the adequacy (or lack thereof) and coherence of human or social behaviors.

There is a philosophical work that I’ve come into contact with recently, which argues that that the greatest utility of reason is to ask the question of morality/ethics. If we take our two concepts, we see indeed that aufhebung – as a Hegelian concept -, and cynicism – as an inheritance of the Renaissance (and thus of Ancient Greek heritage) – both plunge their roots of elaboration in contexts of the question of the good life, an ethical question that traversed as much Antiquity as the era of European political revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries. One philosopher of this latter time was David Hume, and I would like to link these two concepts to his proposal of what the “Good Life” consists of.

David Hume.

In his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), open source on Gutenberg (!!), Hume lamented the separation between thought and the concrete world, which he mainly attributed to the historical role that the Church had played up to that point:

Philosophy of all kinds, especially ethics, have been more closely united with theology than ever […] and as this latter science admits of no terms of composition, but bends every branch of knowledge to its own purpose, without much regard to the phenomena of nature, or to the unbiased sentiments of the mind, hence reasoning and even language have been warped from their natural course, and distinctions have been endeavored to be established where the difference of the objects was […] imperceptible.

Really, this complaint could just as well apply to our own objects of analysis: we can as much lament 1) the spiral of madness in which Travis Bickle descends out of imaginary conceptions of the world (guns, TV, mediatization of politics, etc.) as 2) the extreme unilaterality with which mass discourse appropriates current events according to their ideology or political interests (ex. presenting or emphasizing some facts rather than others in the War in Ukraine). Both categories of our present analysis speak to the power of Hume’s complaint that thought is too separated from concrete phenomena such as our senses, our connection with society, with nature, with our own actions, etc. Even more importantly, the point here is that the distance separating ideas and reality is a distortion, a deformation of reason.

Being reasonable is being attentive and listening to the world around us. When we do take the time and effort to train our attention and to work against biases of judgment, Hume suggests that we inevitably face the ethical considerations of our existence in the midst of social relations. If deciding whether to eat or not because you’re not sure if you’re hungry or just bored, taking for granted that the pantry is full enough, this might not be an ethical question because we are not in direct relation with anybody else; however, when a disheveled stranger asks you to buy him breakfast, this attempt at a social relation immediately involves an ethical dilemma.

Why? Hume argues that simple observation, whether inwardly or outward, will always demonstrate that, in social contexts, sentiments of benevolence (lenity, tenderness or generosity towards others) are universally approved of. It is on the basis of something that all human beings share to some greater or lesser degree (“proximate equality”) that all human beings can feel the same sentiment (approving of benevolence). Hence Hume’s explanation that, should we enter into contact with a “species of creatures” which were totally incapable of resisting our power, “our intercourse with them could not be called society (which supposes a degree of equality), but absolute command on the one side and servile obedience on the other”.

Thus, the utility of proximate equality being its capacity to create conditions of social intercourse, the utility of benevolence is to bring balance and sustenance to such a relation. There is a recognition that happens when that person comes to ask you for breakfast: you can recognize the notion of hunger, of poverty, of humility or brazenness depending on how the question is asked, and so on. When you choose how to act or how to answer that question, the unavoidable question and consequence of that act will be “how does this impact our relation, does it strengthen or weaken it?”

Hume argues that ethics and its moral considerations are of the first importance for human beings, and that we derive great enjoyment and involvement from actions handled “with a view to public interest”, the simple reason being that

Human nature cannot by any means subsist without the association of individuals; and that association never could have place, were no regard paid to the laws of equity and justice. […] Common interest and utility beget infallibly a standard of right and wrong among the parties concerned.

While it is entirely possible that the person asking you to pay for breakfast will subsist even if you refuse, there is also the possibility that, for example if everyone refuses, it could become difficult if not impossible to get breakfast, with all the existential problems that this can bring.

On a side note, I want to take a moment here to praise the work of organizations such as the Breakfast Club of Canada, who work through various means to provide breakfast to schoolchildren in need. Breakfast is not a given even in the Western “societies of abundance”. Also notice, thinking of Hume’s argument, about how you feel about such initiatives: I think you will agree it is quite difficult to “blame” or criticize such an initiative, and it is even more difficult not to feel an overwhelming sentiment of approval in the face of it.

To come back to Hume, the consequence of his argument (that humanity cannot subsist without associations of its individuals) is that our lives are profoundly rooted, whether we are aware of it or not, and whether we like it or not, into a soil of ethical dilemmas and dimensions. He even goes as far as to contend that, following the logic of his argument, “the utmost which [one] can attain by the most elaborate selfishness is the indulgence of some affection [by another]”.

Here, then, is an endgame of reasoning: to better humanity by bettering its relation with itself. Here, then, is the utility and benefit of the use and practice of tools of reason such as aufhebung or cynicism: they allow us to practice and sharpen our reasoning and to train our thoughts to stay closer to reality. And as we approach reality, Hume strongly argues that we in fact approach the ethical dimension of human life: the closer and more studiously we look at our ourselves, the more we understand that the best and most useful thing we can do is to improve the lives of those we live with. Here, then, is what aufhebung, cynicism and any other exercise of reason can help us with: staying true to ourselves and our (ultimate) enjoyment (of public good).

Let us end by emphasizing the nature of the work of reason, as Hume did: the work of reason is to highlight, to bring to the surface the questions that are important to us. How we answer those questions depends as much on our mobilization of reason as of the courage, luck and difficulty of the circumstances before us. But without the work of reason, we tend to lose sight of the social dimension of our lives, of our happiness and, ultimately, of ourselves. Rather than guns and ammunition, war and propaganda; what if the greatest arsenal of humanity was its capacity to conceive of its happiness and emancipation, to conceive of reasonable behavior as moral behavior?

I hope reading this has left you feeling better and has brought out the best in you. Please consider supporting this effort by visiting the Marxian Matrix’s patreon page. We also have a Twitter account we intend to update every day, mostly with quotes to inspire critique. Keep up the good fight.


  • Wikipedia articles quoted throughout the page.
  • Hume’s 1751 treatise Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Gutenberg open-source link.
  • Le Monde Diplomatique, articles quoted throughout the page, here is their English home page.
    • BONUS: Amnesty International, after more than 90 articles condemning Russia, also published a report that Ukraine was using civilian centers to hide/protect its military forces, which got immediately blasted by Zelensky. Link
  • Various daily news articles, quoted throughout the page.
  • Economic Policy Institute page, always a good read. Link

One Comment

  1. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading your thoughts and formulations, especially after such a long pause. Thank you for writing and sharing your thoughts and knowledge, I for sure find great comfort in reading these lines.

    I do feel better after having read the post, in the sense that it served as a reminder/encouragement for me to continue mobilizing reason despite oftentimes feeling inadequate (as in unknowledgeable). It takes a lot of courage to exercise and employ reason as you explain it in your post, as sometimes the conclusions and consequent calls to action are difficult to accept and follow through.

    In any case, I wanted to share my comments on a few things and sorry if my use of certain words is not specific enough. I am still learning these concepts. You write at some point, pertaining to Aufhebung (in the first part of the post), that one’s choices and trajectories tend to stay within the grooves left by previous acts of choices: I have understood Aufhebung as the action of transcending that which stems from past frameworks into something “new” and emancipatory. If by acting in the world one only tends to stay within the same imprints of the past, is “rising from the abstract to the concrete” still possible? Would using reason as Hume put it be a way to a more emancipatory Aufhebung? Or rather using reason as a means to then act a certain way, as just thought alone is too separated from concrete phenomena?

    In the same vein, I found it interesting to read that thought is too separated from concrete phenomena and that distancing the two is a deformation of reason. Throughout my education (especially highschool), we would study poems or novels that portrayed the sort of cold and distant thinker archetype, where this idea was a bit turned around its head: it was through separation from the world, that the thinker could reason more “wholly”. The separation/distance taken by the thinker would not bring about any kind of distortion but rather would allow him to see reality in a “truer” sense.

    I had a similar experience to that of offering breakfast to a less fortunate stranger and have immediately had the reaction that my benevolence (if you will, although I have to say that it was not my own initiative, but that I was only the executor) was universally being approved of: upon paying for the breakfast, the cashier lauded me with a “you are too kind”. I guess Hume was right.

    Lastly, my thought when reading about proximal equality ended with the following question: if all interaction between humans can be make on the basis of proximal equality (we all share more or less something similar in our existence), how do we arrive at realities of absolute command on the one side and servile obedience on the other? The example that came to mind was foreign aid (say in the form of potable water) in less developed countries where the developed countries are always the “saviours” but, in fact, create more damage than good, and where, in the process, the aid becomes absolute command and the native populations have little choice (generally) than to servilely obey? The relationship in this example is definitely weakened.

    I guess I do have one more curiosity – Hume uses the term “human nature”. From reading your blog overall, I could infer that this is not a term that you are too happy with? What do you make of it? Perhaps Hume himself addresses this in his work (that I have not read)? In any case, he seems like a cool guy.

    Looking forward to the Twitter quotes and to cultivate some critical thinking!

    Thanks again for sharing a bit of yourself through these lines.



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