Intentionality, Literature, and Free Will: An Interview With Niklas Straetker
For this interview, I talked to Niklas Straetker, a second-year graduate student in the German department whose research deals with the intersections of literature, philosophy, psychology and law. I asked him to identify and trace the intellectual progression of the biggest philosophical problem that the centers in his research, intentionality, and over the course of our interview, he discusses his relationship to the problem, how it figures into his current research, and why he believes that both philosophers and non-philosophers should seek a deeper understanding of it.
The Gadfly: Is there any single philosophical problem that particularly interests you or recurs in your research?
Niklas Straetker: I thought about it, and it’s a problem which is, in the very very broadest sense, the question of intention.
G: How would you explain this problem to a friend with no formal training in philosophy?
NS: The thing is, of course, that within the humanities, the notion of ‘intentionality’ is ambiguous. On the one hand, you have the common-sense concept of ‘intention’ in the sense of somebody’s ‘plan’ or ‘purpose’ and then ‘intentionality’ in the specifically philosophical sense, which was coined by this German proto-phenomenologist Brentano, which rather means, and I think that is the way it is exclusively used in the philosophical and analytic philosophical discourse right now, that intentionality is broader than just ‘the plan.’ It's basically the general ‘being directed toward’ something and how you can have a relation to an object. However, within literary studies, people tend to use ‘intentionality’ in the narrower sense of the author’s, narrator’s or protagonist’s intention. When I speak of ‘intentionality’ in this interview, I will mostly stick to the narrower meaning.
G: When did you first encounter this problem and how did your interest in it develop?
NS: I mean, I started with literature, with studying literature, before I started studying philosophy. So I first did a BA in literature and then started with philosophy later because I got interested in it via literature. That would be also the hinge between philosophy and literature: intentionality. You might have heard of this classic text by Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author," which might have already turned into a cliche, but which still seems a bit like the paradigm in literature studies—that basically in high school you always want to know, "what did the author want to say with this text?" and "what was his intention?” And then, at university, you learn "no, that's not important, let's look at the structures,” or at how the structures dissolve themselves. And so it seemed, and I had the feeling that, certain strands of literary theory were very much running this complete anti-intentional agenda. Like they were saying “hahaha everyone who believes in intention whatsoever is an idiot anyway because there are some determining structures.” In this sense it would be discourse, it would be the archive, it would be, you know, just the dissemination of the text. While I found that convincing, I always found it very coarse, very broad, this kind of fetishization of there not being any real intention possible or interesting anyway because it's all just bigger external structures that determine everything. And so it was, in that sense, kind of ex negativo that I got interested in intentionality.
G: Why would someone with no formal, academic philosophical training care about this problem or find it interesting?
NS: The big question, generally, is very close to the whole free will debate, or free will question, which seems to be both the most interesting and the most boring question on earth. There was also kind of a moment of awakening. I once took, during my undergrad, a seminar on free will, free will theories, and it's insane, basically, where you then just read those texts--the compatibilists, libertarians, and then hard determinists. So, I mean obviously, right now, there is this tendency too—and this has also seeped into common consciousness—not in the sense of Derrida or Foucault or Barthes, but rather in the sense of neuroscience. Basically, neuropsychology progresses and progresses and progresses. Then there was this Libet Experiment, which, in philosophy, is very well known, and which people then always mention, saying, ‘you know, this kind of showed that basically there was this kind of neural reaction before there was any kind of consciousness of it.’ Most people just plainly denied that anything like free will or basically really being able to do something against one's determined nature is possible, that this is basically just kind of an idealistic, antiquated, anachronistic speculation. So I always had the feeling both on the part of Foucault, Derrida, and also on the part of these kinds of philosophers, like let's say John Searle or neuroscience in general, that it basically almost turns into a fetishization of us being able to escape prior structures. I think that basically the scope is just way too coarse. It also seems a bit prone to conceptual confusion. With free will, and in the very very very technical sense, of course, the idea of being oneself, like a prime mover, or being like a Causa sui, the classic argument goes that even if that were possible, it just wouldn't make any sense because if you had a decision which isn't preceded by some other causality, then it would be kind of an empty decision. Right now it also seems that in free will theory, it's a bit like in physics. I know very little about physics, but I know that free will theory took up the whole Heisenberg uncertainty stuff---and that's the question: what does it still explain that on some very very very ultimate, theoretical level we can or cannot have free will? What about the intermediate steps? Or is there something like a broader notion of free will which is still worth exploring?
G: Are there any specific works or figures that have shaped your perspective on this problem? If so, briefly describe them. How did they influence your current perspective?
NS: Immanuel Kant would still be the prime guy. I first got to know him in Literary Studies when we read Critique of Judgement. That's normally the classic point of intersection between literary studies and philosophy, like, aesthetics. Kant was giving the classic definition of beauty and how we judge something to be beautiful, and that made me just very very interested in Kant because we had to read this text of his on the sublime and the beautiful, and I was just blown away by the clarity of his expression. Then, I read the Critique of Pure Reason, which I still believe, and which probably lots of people would agree, might just be the most influential work of modern philosophy if we bracket the ancients. Already, there, Kant had what was called the Third Antinomy, basically saying that on the one hand it is completely clear that in the kind of phenomenal world we are completely determined, that in the realm of causality it is impossible to find something that is not caused by something prior to it ad infinitum. But Kant had the whole idea, then, of course, of the noumenal world and of the realm of pure practical reason, which then would allow you, by the power of logic, to circumvent your bodily determinedness. That's the classic configuration, that Kant, on the one hand, is throwing a bone to the deterministic people, and on the other hand, is still making a plea for, call it autonomy, call it freedom. What I found interesting, and that's how literature came in, is basically that, literature or more generally, art, seems to be this hinge element that mediates between merely causal, merely empirical concerns, and our ability to be free or autonomous actors. Let's take, for example, the categorical imperative, just in the sense that art may contribute or make it possible in the first place to be able to follow the categorical imperative, and thus to develop autonomy. Literature comes in because of the German playwright, philosopher, and historian Schiller. In Germany, he's more or less as famous as Goethe, and he wrote some great plays, but he also was a Kantian philosopher. His most famous philosophical work is called Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. There, he was not one of the first ones, but was one of the most impressive examples of really making a case for how the aesthetic experience through art, of art, be it through sometimes artistic epiphanies, or whatever, enables us to reach, or at least improve, or enhance, open up a space for autonomy and freedom which then would give art, give literature, a very important function. I said it was Kant and Schiller who influenced me very much, but then it was also Kafka, just through his texts. If we assume that art can, for whatever reason, change us, better us, I always had the feeling that it was Kafka's texts that best exemplified that. The most quoted little saying of Kafka's, which has already turned into a cliche, is that "literature has to be the axe for the frozen sea within us," and so this, then, all kind of converges. This is obviously a very philosophical function, if certain artworks, and I really say certain because some people, some artworks, will not make you see the world differently, or will not have some kind of epiphany effect on you. But if you have, let's say, Kafka's work—works which basically, you read them, and you feel both alienated, thrown back, isolated, and for whatever reason, to be losing orientation—these are the moments in which you're capable of really making structural changes or deciding to set a different path for yourself.
G: What are you working on right now? How would you describe your current research project the way you might describe it to a friend with no formal philosophical training?
NS: Right now I'm working a lot on the intersection of literature, legal theory, and moral and legal philosophy. For example, we still have it, and it's more or less the same problem we had a hundred years ago. Right now, if we had like a murderer, a serial killer, a mass murderer, or a horrible child raping killer, then of course, you'd have the question of ‘madness’ and thus the dispute between the legal system and the psychiatric system. The legal system needs to hold people accountable, but you can basically only say that somebody is guilty, or that somebody deserves punishment, if they had the free will not to act. So, then, for example, if somebody is ruled incapacitated or non-imputable, then you have to lock him away, like in an insane asylum, but you can’t blame him; the blameworthiness is gone. What I have been doing a bit is researching how this rivalry between psychiatry and jurisprudence developed. And, I mean, I'm looking at the German-speaking context. In the 19th century, how the new disciplines like criminology, criminal psychiatry, were basically trying to claim the offenders by saying that they were medical cases rather than juristic cases, and I'm looking at how literature and criminals in literature, or how authors are reacting to this conundrum, or problem between the legal discourse, and by implication, also, the public needing and wanting to hold people accountable, and then psychiatry and criminology saying "no no no it's medical cases." You can find it in Kafka a lot. I mean, Kafka had studied law, and he knew very very well, and it was around 1900, when there was this extreme fight between classic jurisprudence and this new kind of very positivistic inductive jurisprudence. Also in the great author, Robert Musil, the Austrian author. His most famous epic novel is called Man Without Qualities. There, you have this whole question all the time of how to find some compromise, or how to find any kind of solution to this problem that we kind of always want, and need, and can't go without imputing blame and holding people accountable, but on the other hand, we have science telling us 'no, those who are the biggest criminals are also those who are most determined by whatever deficient bodily structure.' Then maybe, the twist is how literature itself may interact with or intervene in this discussion.