Either The One Way Or The Other

Nick Williams
6 min readFeb 6, 2023

We can either be driven by the need to turn a profit (which is to say, by ‘the need to obtain the advantageous outcome’) or we can be conscious. We can’t be both — it’s always got to be either the one way or the other. What’s more — and this is something we aren’t particularly prone to noticing — we’re almost always in the mode where we are being motivated by the need to obtain an advantageous outcome. It’s a very rare thing indeed when we aren’t…

The thing that we’re guaranteed not to get is that the concrete sense of identity (or ‘agency’) which we take so much for granted depends upon has to be continually striving for the advantage. We can’t ever stop striving for goals, in other words; if we did then we’d lose that defined sense of ourselves and we don’t want that to happen! Or — as we could more accurately say — the defined sense of self that we hand over our freedom and believe ourselves to be — doesn’t want that to happen… We don’t ever want to let that happen — no actual damage will befall us as a result of us dropping all our definitions (which is to say, our ‘mental images’) but this radical change in perspective represents the ultimate challenge to us. No bigger challenge is possible and so rather than risk this unthinkable transformation we stick with what we know and are comfortable with, even if it is only a poor dull illusion…

This constant unremitting purposefulness is all-important to us, therefore -that’s why we’re constantly harping on foolishly about winners and losers (which has to do, as we all know, with the question of whether we are successful in our quest for the advantage or not). We are absolutely fixated on our never-ending goals, and this has nothing to do with any question of actual pragmatic utility. We say that being in purposeful mode is all about actual utility, we firmly believe this to be the case, but it just isn’t true. The classic example of this from the point of view of existential psychotherapy at least, is the false notion that we have about freedom. Everyone extols freedom, everyone believes that freedom is what they want; when we engage in our habitual purposeful mechanical activity we do so because we believe that it is going to result in our freedom, in one form or another. That’s the validation for what we’re doing. This is a red-herring however — it’s a decoy because what we really want is to be kept busy looking for freedom forever. Finding it was never on the menu, not really — that’s only the cover-story….

When Greg Tucker observes — as many other psychotherapists have — that although when we are suffering from neurosis we will of course be preoccupied with finding relief from the pain involved, when there is actually the real prospect of freedom from the pattern of thinking and behaving that we’re trapped in we are very much inclined to backtrack pretty quickly. We call this ‘self-sabotage’, but speaking in these terms is missing the point entirely — we’re not sabotaging ourselves, we’re actually preserving ourselves. We are preserving ‘the pattern that is us’; we are preserving the familiar concrete sense that we have of ourselves, which is being created and maintained by the ongoing neurotic struggle. Being caught up in neurotic conflict (whatever the details of that conflict might be) defines us, it provides us with a concrete way of knowing who we are, and so freedom from this struggle, freedom from this conflict, also means freedom from being defined, and — as we have just said — this is a challenge that we are maximally resistant to taking on. As Jean Baudrillard says, ‘It’s always the same: once you are liberated you are forced to ask who you are.’

This doesn’t tend to make the slightest bit of sense to us — we all imagine that it absolutely is possible for us to be liberated and yet at the same time know perfectly well who we are. This is not the case however, as we would see straightaway if we were to actually find ourselves in the situation (or rather the ‘non-situation’) of being liberated. In order for us to ‘know who we are’ we have to be defined and to be defined is of course to be limited. What else is definition but limitation? In the same way that there is no way to define freedom, there is no way to define who we are when we’re free. This isn’t a philosophical quibble — it’s a tremendously significant psychological fact that any one of us could experience were we had the appetite to do so. To be not defined (either by our environment or by our thoughts) is the biggest ‘shock to the system’ that there could ever be. There is no way for us to prepare for it since all we know are ‘definitions’; all we know are definitions and there is no such thing as ‘a definition that can prepare us for the state of being undefined’…

Becoming ‘undefined’ is the ultimate change in perspective, the ultimate surprise. We can neither foresee it nor prepare for it, and because of our fear of the unknown this is the possibility in life that we most want to avoid. The thing we want most to avoid is ‘not being defined’ and ‘not being defined’ simply means freedom. Freedom is of course ‘that state of affairs in which all limitations have been removed’. Because the state of freedom is the very last thing we want to come across in our lives we’re obliged to keep ourselves busy, we’re obliged to tightly focus our attention on our goals. Our goals aren’t what we say they are, or what we believe them to be, however. Our fear of being undefined means that we are compelled to perpetuate a fundamentally conflicted situation, the fundamentally conflicted situation in which we keep ourselves busy striving for freedom whilst actually doing the opposite of what believe ourselves to be doing. We say that we want to be free, and that this is what all our efforts are directed towards, whilst — unbeknownst to ourselves — this is the one thing we’re making sure never happens.

This is inevitably going to be the case given that the type of freedom we want (which is the only type of freedom that we makes any sense to us) is freedom for the idea that we have of who we are (which is to say, ‘freedom for the defined or conditioned self’). Any notion of gain, any notion of profit, is always going to be for the sake of this idea we have of ourselves — who else would it be for, after all? The self is the only gainer. We are therefore almost always in this split or conflicted modality, the modality in which we say we’re doing one thing whilst actually doing the other. We can’t imagine that this could be the case — and we wouldn’t believe it even if someone were to tell us — but this lack of disposition on our part to see what’s really going on is part and parcel of this particular modality of existence. More than just ‘part and parcel’, it’s the beginning and the end of it.

As long as we’re trying to turn a profit (as long as we’ve got a beady eye fixed on the advantageous outcome) we are playing a finite game and that means that we’re divided against ourselves. We’re ‘divided against ourselves’ because we believe ourselves to be seeking one thing whilst actually we’re seeking the other. This is the self-contradictoriness which James Carse says is inherent in all finite games. What we’re actually seeking is a more secure prison for ourselves and — paradoxically enough — our ‘freedom-seeking activity’ is itself the prison. We’re divided against ourselves because we’re siding with ‘the false idea of who we are’ against ‘who we actually are’. In this state of being (where we are divided against ourselves) there can clearly be no consciousness — if there were consciousness in this situation then the conflict would cease. There is no consciousness in a finite game, there is no consciousness in this conflicted business where we side with ‘who we are not’ against ‘who we are’; as we have just said, it’s simply not possible to engage in this self-contradiction and yet be conscious at the same time. We can’t deceive ourselves and yet be aware at one and the same time…