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2/8/2017 Peter Bieri: How do we want to live? | ZEIT ONLINE
2/8/2017 Peter Bieri: How do we want to live? | ZEIT ONLINE
2/8/2017 Peter Bieri: How do we want to live? | ZEIT ONLINE

Peter Bieri: How do we want to live? | ZEIT ONLINE

Peter Bieri

What do we want?

In his monthly column for ZEITmagazin LEBEN, the philosopher and writer Peter Bieri is concerned with the question: What does it mean to determine our lives?

From Peter Bieri

June 7, 2007, 2:00 pm



Edited on August 7, 2007, 8:00 am


Source: ZEITmagazin LIVING, 07.06.2007 No.

We want to determine our lives. These are words that are passionate in their approval, for they act on our dignity and happiness. But what do they actually mean?

We want to live in harmony with our very own thoughts, feelings and desires. We do not want anyone to prescribe what we have to think, say, and do. No paternalism by the parents, no taciturn tyranny by life companions, no threats from employers and landlords. No one who compels us to do what we do not want from us. No external compulsion, and no alienation. At your own chosen place in the very own time do what you want. This longing is great, the daydreams prove it.

But sometimes we voluntarily renounce our wishes. This comes from the way we meet from person to person. Such encounters are based on mutual expectations: We expect the others to do certain things and that they too expect us to. And this includes the moral intimacy in which we live with the other: our mutual expectation that we take consideration and renounce the fulfillment of wishes. Here it is not my own needs that determine me, but the alien. Does not that mean a loss of self-determination?

If we do not experience it this way, because we know another way in which we can decide about ourselves. It has to do with our self-image - with the question of who we want to be. We have the ability to build an inner distance to our thoughts, feelings and desires, to examine and evaluate them: with which of them do we agree? Which one would we rather not have? How much space do


Peter Bieri: How do we want to live? | ZEIT ONLINE

we want to meet the needs of others? And then we can try to bring our own experience and action into line with the self-image. Self-determined in this sense is someone who succeeds to be what he likes to see. How can this succeed?

There is no choice from the zero point. Before we get so far as to take a picture of ourselves and measure life, thousands of things have fallen upon us and shaped us. These impressions form the base for everything else, and we can not determine this base. But that does not matter, because the opposite would not be possible anyway: the one who stood at the zero point could not determine himself, for he would not have a scale yet. So what can it mean to influence oneself?

We can ask ourselves whether we think the right thing or are prejudiced in mere prejudices. We can search for documents, correct ourselves, and thus determine ourselves. We can examine whether we are in agreement with the wishes that have set us in motion so far: with a desire for success or for power. We can counter-control and put obstacles in our path to be more like our self-image. We can also work on emotions: an anxiety, a grudge or a jealousy. And the self-image is on its side: sometimes it is not a matter of bending to such an image, but throwing an enslaving idea of oneself overboard.

The inner transformation, in which this kind of self-determination exists, does not proceed from a high seat, which surpassed the flow of psychic life high and untouchable. The point of correction is part of this flow and is based on certain thoughts, desires and feelings. And the influence can not be misinterpreted:

inner transformation can not simply be decided and realized through spiritual alchemy. Many external detours are necessary: change of scenery, new experiences, new relationships, work with coaches and therapists. The whole is a struggle against the inner monotony. If we lose it, then again because of a constraint, this time an inner one. We do not arrive at the stiffness of experience either with insight or with the will, and become ever more alien to us.

The best chance to win the fight is self-knowledge. You can only free yourself from inner constraints by looking through them. The better we understand ourselves, the easier it is for us to find ways to enumerate and open ourselves to new experiences. Perhaps the most valuable thing about self-knowledge is their contribution to self-determination.

How we evaluate ourselves from the inner distance, the extent to which we are able to influence ourselves, and what self-image is guiding us-all this is not in


Peter Bieri: How do we want to live? | ZEIT ONLINE

our hands. We do not sit as silent directors in our interior and pull the threads in the whole drama. Is this something? On the contrary, we can be happy about the many things that happen behind our backs. For every single element of self- determination on its part has to be determined and controlled - that would be a nightmare. And it would require an army of internal inspectors, for the question of control would reappear for any control.

But if we do not have so many things in our hands, are we not, in the end, mere acts of an inner event and therefore no actors, no subjects? And is it not devastating for the idea of self-determination? But this can only be the case if we have the chimera of an omnipotent subject before us, which in itself is free in every respect. For a real subject and a real actor, it is enough to be an unsupervised place where the right kind of drama takes place.

Proper is the drama, if it is not manipulated. Nobody should make us marionettes. We want to speak with our own voice.

What can it mean? It can not mean to be influenced by the others at all. What we think has a lot to do with the others: we share a language and a way of life, we are taught and rely on authorities. We are not thought islands. We are also not islands as feelings and desires: our emotions and desires often apply to others and depend on what they do. And we are also deliberately altered by the others.

So what distinguishes the influence that we feel as manipulation, of influence that does not threaten self-determination?

The influence must be planned, and there are clear cases of manipulation:

hypnosis, advertising without the chance of noticing, deception and deprived information, tactical exploitation of emotions, brainwashing, which extinguishes every own voice. In such cases, we are passed on as independent persons and are not at all properly present. This is cruel, because it means a loss of dignity.

But how is it, if someone seduces us by making a denied desire for a breakthrough? If somebody persuades us with mighty, irresistible words? If he smiled at us with a smile that simply wiped away all the resentment we had been bothering at? Is that liberation or the opposite?

To escape from outer compulsion, to exert a liberating self-image, to deflect manipulation, to find a voice of their own: all this belongs to the struggle for self- determination. The idea of a self-determined life is not a single idea. The aims and efforts are different, though not without context. The struggle can be more


Peter Bieri: How do we want to live? | ZEIT ONLINE

or less successful, and it is never ending. Self-determination is something gradual and something that can be lost again and again. We need good luck, happiness with the world and with ourselves. In the past, we are often not sure how close we are to the ideal. We sometimes recognize the hours of self- determination in retrospect. Then we say: At that time, in that happy moment, I was completely with myself.

Peter Bieri is Professor of Philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin. This year, the 62- year-old was awarded the Lichtenberg Medal of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences. Under the name Pascal Mercier, he published the bestsellers "Night train to Lisbon" and "Lea"