Werner Erhard

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Assessment Of The Philosophical Significance Of The est Training

By Hubert L. Dreyfus


The est Training is multi-faceted and intense.  After one encounter I by no means feel that I have grasped all the implications and interconnections.  In any case I will not go into how the training affected my life, since the report I agreed to produce was not to be a recounting of miracles but rather the assessment of a certain way of accounting for them.  Nor am I professionally trained to evaluate the psycho-therapeutic, social, political, organizational, etc., aspects of the training.  As a professional philosopher I shall stick to a critical assessment of the epistemological, metaphysical, and theological conceptualization of a group process which clearly works and which, unlike most transformational techniques, seeks to give a detailed account of how it works to those on whom it works. 

I will divide my comments into three parts:

Part I – Internal Assessment of the est the Metaphysics.
In the course of the training it became progressively clear to me that the experience underlying the training and the conceptualization of this experience have deep affinities with the phenomena presented and analyzed in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time.  I will therefore compare my understanding of the est training to my understanding of the account presented by Heidegger and suggest ways that Heidegger’s analysis might be used to render the basic est insight more consistent and compelling. 

Part II – an External Assessment.  In this section, I will criticize, from the perspective of later Heidegger and Soren Kierkegaard, what I take to be the truth set forth in Being and Time and in the est training, as well as the quality of life which this truth makes possible.
Finally, in two appendices, I will discuss first, philosophical moves less central to the truth of the est training which I personally feel require further refinement, and second, the general mode of philosophical argument characteristic of the training which no doubt serves an important function but which might well offend philosophers. 

Part I – Internal Assessment:  How to talk about a truth that works.
It is directly manifest in the est training that est embodies a powerful and coherent truth which transforms the quality of the lives of those who experience it.  Moreover, this truth contains radically new insights into the nature of human beings and the cosmos which were unknown both to Greek philosophy and to the mystical tradition from which it grew.  Since, however, the mystical/philosophical tradition has given us most of our concepts, it is almost impossible to conceptualize this experience without putting it in traditional terms, thus diluting and distorting the experience. 

The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, generally considered the most profound and original philosopher of the 20th century, had a similar  experience to the one elicited by est and struggled all his life to find an adequate language to express it without falling, as he put it, into the ruts of metaphysics.   His first and most famous attempt to articulate this experience is the formidable and unfinished philosophical classic, Being and Time (1927).  Since his account parallels and illuminates the est approached I will sketch it here.

Heidegger begins by introducing a new method.  He is not interested in beliefs, arguments, and conceptual systems.  Rather he proposes a procedure which he calls hermeneutic, phenomenology, in which one gets behind the concepts and everyday interpretations of experience to a direct manifestation of Being itself.  Both Heidegger and Erhard are wary of the attempt to convert the truth of experience into a system of beliefs.  What Erhard puts aphoristically (“If you experience it, it’s the truth.  The same thing believed is a lie.”)  Heidegger expresses in more German  i.e. philosophical prose.

Whenever a phenomenological concept is drawn from primordial sources, there is a possibility that it may degenerate if communicated in the form of an assertion.  It gets understood in an empty way and is thus passed on, losing its indigenous character, and becoming a free-floating thesis.    (pp. 60, 61.)

Heidegger proposes to show in the course of his investigation that each of us already has what he calls a preontological understanding of Being, but that this understanding is covered up.
‘Behind’ the phenomena of phenomenology there is essentially nothing else; on the other hand, what is to become a phenomenon can be hidden.  And just because the phenomena are proximally and for the most part not given, there is need for phenomenology.  Covered-up-ness is the counter-concept to ‘phenomenon’ …  [A] phenomenon can be buried over.  This means it has at some time been discovered but has deteriorated to the point of getting covered up again… This covering-up as a ‘disguising’ is both the most frequent and the most dangerous, for here the possibilities of deceiving and misleading are especially stubborn.  (p.60)

Thus in order to make the truth directly manifest, phenomenology must break through rationalizations, traditional belief structures and the resistance which supports them until human beings (which Heidegger calls “Dasein”) can directly confront the phenomena.
Dasein’s kind of Being thus demands that any ontological interpretation which sets itself the goal of exhibiting the phenomena in their primordiality, should capture the Being of this entity, in spite of this entity’s own tendency to cover things up.  Existential analysis, therefore, constantly has the character of doing violence, whether to the claims of the everyday interpretation, or to its complacency and its tranquilized obviousness.   (p. 359)

Thus if one can face, first, what est calls not knowing, one can achieve natural knowing or certainty.  What often seems to the trainee defending his belief system to be the trainer’s dogmatic and authoritarian insistence that he (the trainer) knows the truth, can be understood phenomenologically as the certainty which goes with directly experiencing the truth at each moment.
As in the est training, what Heidegger uncovers emerges only little by little in the course of analysis.  There is a first preliminary uncovering in Division I of Being and Time and then, in Division II, the whole process has to be repeated for a deeper revelation which puts the revelations of Division I in a totally new perspective.

In Division I Heidegger is concerned with making manifest our everyday condition.  Heidegger first examines what he calls the “clearing” opened up by our everyday social practices, in which we encounter objects and people as the kinds of objects and people we are brought up to expect and cope with.  This account is similar to the est account of the social world as the product of agreement or consensus and of the physical world as the product of absolute agreement.  [I did not receive the board material on this subject, so my terminology may be inaccurate.]  Heidegger and Erhard agree that physical reality does not rest on individual agreement – the agreement has always already been given – but it is not independent of historical human practices which shape our judgments, interests, and discriminations.  Heidegger calls this already-given interpretation human facticity.  Since we are all already trained into this way of understanding ourselves and other entities by the time we begin to think, and since it is the element in which we perceive and move (like water for the fish), Heidegger says we are thrown into it and calls it our thrownness.  Est says, “You have no choice in the matter.”
Without this background we could not perceive or cope with things at all.  Thus Heidegger speaks of our relation to it as one of indebtedness and also responsibility.  (The double meaning of the German word Schuld.)  In est terms:  “…[Y]ou can remember you caused it any time you want to.”  
(In contrast to Erhard, however, Heidegger seeks to show that this social space, which he calls the world, is prior to various sub-worlds such as the world of business, the world of the theater, and all particular “private” worlds.  He also distinguishes this disclosure space from physical space in which objects are located, and from the universe which is the totality of objects.  All objects, including the whole universe, can only be encountered within the world.  We will look at the implications of these differences in the next section.)

Turning to the beings whose practices embody an understanding of various kinds of being and so open up this space, Heidegger shows that everyday human beings do not realize they are a clearing and thus do not own their own lives but are lived by the Anyone (Das Man) – Heidegger’s name for social and cultural norms  i.e., for what “one does”.

Dasein, as an Anyone-self, gets ‘lived’ by the common sense ambiguity of that publicness in which nobody resolves upon anything but which has always made its decision. (p. 345)
Each person is totally determined by these norms, Heidegger says, that the who of everyday Dasein is the Anyone-self.  Such a self is unowned or inauthentic (Uneigentlich).   In language identical with Erhard’s, Heidegger says that such a self does not assume responsibility for its world and so has no freedom, spontaneity and choice – and hence no joy.  Everyday Dasein simply identifies with its social role and acts out the social patterns which have formed it.

With Dasein’s lostness in the “Anyone”, the factical potentiality-for-Being which is closest to it (the tasks, rules, and standards, the urgency and extent, of concernful and solicitous Being-in-the-world) has already been decided upon.  The “Anyone” has always kept Dasein from taking hold of these possibilities of Being.  The “Anyone” even hides the manner in which it has tacitly relieved Dasein of the burden of explicitly choosing these possibilities.  It remains indefinite who has ‘really’ done the choosing.  So Dasein make no choices, gets carried along by the nobody, and thus ensnares itself in inauthenticity.  (p.312)

In Division II, it turns out that human beings persist in this lifeless state because they are fleeing a dim premonition of anxiety.  Anxiety is the experience of the fact that the whole social order and all of science is an arbitrary and ungrounded consensus.  There is no solid self and no brute facts.  No way to make sense of and be at home in the world. 
When in falling we flee into the “at-home” of publicness, we flee in the face of the “not-at-home”; that is, we flee in the face of the uncanniness which lies in Dasein – in Dasein as thrown Being-in-the-world, which has been delivered over to itself in its Being.  This uncanniness pursues Dasein constantly, and is a threat to its everyday lostness in the “Anyone”, though not explicitly.  This threat can go together factically with complete assurance and self-sufficiency in one’s everyday concern.  (p. 234)

The experience of anxiety reveals that the Anyone is meaningless and that there is no deep truth, (“Enlightenment doesn’t mean anything”, Erhard says.)  Dasein is not the Anyone-self but it has no other content.  It is a pure nothing over against a meaningless world.  Anxiety discloses an insignificance of the world; and this insignificance reveals the nullity of that w/which one can concern oneself.  (p. 393)

To deny this truth which is deeply disturbing, Dasein flees into the public world and hides in what Heidegger calls idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity.  This is the condition of everyday human beings. 
But there is a way to overcome this condition by recognizing it.  If anxiety is “held onto” rather than denied, then Dasein owns up to and assumes responsibility for itself and so becomes authentic.  In est terms a person then experiences his experience.  This does not mean that one gets a new content for the self – the everyday self just is the pattern of the Anyone, and there is no other content, but one sees that the true Self is not this content.  Heidegger calls this experience of holding onto anxiety and thus freeing one’s self from the Anyone self while still remaining the same person, ‘resoluteness’ (entachlossenheit) which means both decisiveness and openness.
“Resoluteness” signifies letting oneself be summoned out of one’s lostness in the “Anyone”.  The irresoluteness of the “Anyone” remains dominant notwithstanding, but it cannot impugn resolute existence.   …. Even resolutions remain dependent upon the “Anyone” and its world.  The understanding of this is one of the things that a resolution discloses, inasmuch as resoluteness is what first gives authentic transparency to Dasein.  (p. 346)

Heidegger never explains why Dasein’s lack of meaning and content as revealed in anxiety should be disturbing to it, so Heidegger’s account of the motivation for covering up or fleeing remains unsatisfactory.  Erhard is more consistent on this point, suggesting that what we flee is ultimately fear and pain, and that our defenses attempt to insure not the meaningfulness of our lives but the survival of the mind.  Erhard has a problem similar to Heidegger’s however, since he can give no account of why the being identifies its survival with that of the mind in the first place. 
From these two different accounts of ultimate motivation, two different views of the stability of transformation or authenticity follow.  Both Erhard and Heidegger agree that “Get it/lose it is what life is all about.”  For Heidegger, since authenticity reveals that there is no deep meaning of life, Dasein’s demand for a stable, grounded meaning in its life leads human beings to fall back constantly into inauthenticity.  For Erhard, on the other hand, it would seem to follow that once one had seen that the being is not the mind and that defenses always work in assuring survival but always fail by costing aliveness, one observes the defenses and they progressively disappear.  Heidegger and Erhard thus have complimentary problems.  Heidegger can explain why we do not remain authentic, but only by positing a need for meaning for which he has no further account.  Erhard posits no such need, but on his view it remains mysterious why once out of everyday self deception human beings who have “got it’ fall back into everyday assholeism. 

In any case, both Heidegger and Erhard agree on the important point that acceptance of its nothingness does not remove the Self from the world and others but enables it to participate fully for the first time.

Resoluteness, as authentic Being-one’s-Self, does not detach Dasein from its world, nor does it isolate it so that it becomes a free-floating “I”.  And how should it, when resoluteness as authentic disclosedness, is authentically nothing less than Being-in-the-world?  Resoluteness brings the Self right into its current concernful Being-alongside what is ready-to-hand, and pushes it into solicitous Being with Others.  Only by authentically Being-Their-Selves in resoluteness can people authentically be with one another…  (p. 344)

The way one participates is of course not “helping,” which Heidegger calls “leaping in for” another, but rather by letting each person experience his own anxiety, which Heidegger calls “leaping in ahead of” the other and turning him back to face his own nothingness.  Heidegger sums up:
The phenomenon of resoluteness has brought us before the primordial truth of existence.  As resolute, Dasein is revealed to itself in its current factical potentiality-for-Being, and in such a way that Dasein itself is this revealing and Being-revealed.  … The primordial truth of existence demands an equiprimordial Being-certain, in which one maintains oneself in what resoluteness discloses.  It gives itself the current factical situation, and brings itself into the situation.  The situation cannot be calculated in advance… It merely gets disclosed in a free resolving which has not been determined beforehand but is open to the possibility of such determination.

What, then does the certainty which belongs to such resoluteness signify?  Such certainty must maintain itself in what is disclosed by the resolution.  But this means that it simply cannot become rigid as regards the situation, but must understand that the resolution, in accordance with its own meaning as a disclosure, must be held open and free for the current factical possibility.
The new flexibility gained by holding onto anxiety does not, however, make Dasein vacillate or renege on its commitments.  “… It is in the resoluteness that one first chooses the choice which makes one free for the struggle of loyalty.” (p. 437)  The result is enhanced experience.

Along with the sober anxiety which brings us face to face with our individualized potentiality-for-Being, there goes an unshakeable joy in this possibility.  (p. 358)

With this joyful experience there also goes a broadening of one’s ontological horizon.  Instead of identifying oneself with the social practices which are the clearing in which all entities are encountered, the authentic Dasein realizes in an instant of insight (Augenblick) that he is an empty clearing, an active nothing which gets its content from these practices but is not identical, with any of them.  At this early stage of thinking, (for reasons too complicated to go into here).  Heidegger calls this ultimate horizon for understanding Being, which each of us is, the ecstatical temporal unity.  It is neither public nor private, but is the “source” of both the social world and personal experience.  Heidegger describes it (rather obscurely) as “the primordial ‘outside of itself’ in and for itself”, (p. 377) and, in the part of Being and Time never published, he was prepared to call it God.

The similarities between Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology and what one learns in the est Training is obvious and significant.  Both Heidegger and Erhard experience and succeed in conceptualizing the truth that there is no ground or meaning of reality and no deep self which has a content that needs to be expressed or realized.  They thus avoid Greek metaphysics and self-realization theory in all its forms, whether it be the Freudian myth of getting in touch with the deep secret meaning hidden in our sexuality, or the myth of growth in the human potential movement which claims we can fulfill ourselves by discovering our true needs and using our neglected capacities to satisfy them.  If the true Self has no content, then it cannot be expressed, realized, or grow.  [Est terminology is almost, but not quite, pure and consistent on this point.  Occasionally the trainer talks of realizing one’s potential.]  Moreover, getting in touch with the deep self cannot be a change, a development, etc.  The est training makes clear over and over again that transformation is not growth.  Heidegger also insists that the switch from the inauthentic to the authentic is a “primordial modification” which leaves the content of one’s life unchanged while totally transforming one’s relation to that content.…authentic disclosedness modifies with equal primordiality both the way in which the world is discovered …. and the way in which the Dasein-with of Others is disclosed.  The ‘world’ which is ready-to-hand does not become another one ‘in its content’, nor does the circle of Others get exchanged for a new one; but both one’s Being towards the ready-to-hand understandingly and concernfully, and one’s solicitous Being with Others, are now given a definite character in terms of their ownmost potentiality-for-Being-their-Selves. 

Besides these striking similarities, there are, however, three differences in conceptualization between Heidegger and est which are significant and instructive.  Each in its own way suggests that although Erhard has avoided the trap of traditional Greek philosophy by insisting on the nothingness of the true Self, this very insistence has brought him dangerously close to the distorting ideas of a traditional kind of subjectivism (found, for example, in Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology) which posits the ultimate importance of a private inner reality. 

  1. Truth is never total.

The immediate certainty of the truth manifest in experience must not be understood as a direct and uninterpreted merging with the way things are.  Heidegger argues, against Husserl, that the phenomenological method makes truth directly manifest, but it does not do away with concealedness (“All revealing is also concealing.”), nor with interpretation (“The meaning of phenomenological description as a method lies in interpretation.” P. 61).  So Heidegger concludes:
The idea of grasping and explicating phenomena in a way which is ‘original’ and ‘intuitive’ is directly opposed to the naiveté of a ‘immediate’, and unreflective ‘beholding.’ (p. 61)

  1. The world is prior to my world.

Heidegger’s basic claim in opposition to all forms of idealism – especially Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology which est sometimes resembles, is that the world is prior to my world.  We are actively involved in shared situations, working with shared tools and directly confronting other people in cooperative work and play.  It is only when we withdraw and reflect that we “discover” our own private experience, and it is only when we reflect on this reflective experience in a special detached way that we get the distorted view that my world is what is real and the shared world is an “intersubjective production” (Husserl) or an “illusion” (est board diagram of the three universes). 
The fact that we all share one world is so natural and yet so hidden by the philosophical tradition that Heidegger has to work through the tradition in Being and Time in order to get the reader to see that Dasein is a public space of practices that embody a shared understanding of what it means to be.  Division I of Being and Time, among other things, is a “concrete demonstration” that Dasein is Being-in-the-world.

In the est training there is a constant tension on this subject, as if the truth were trying to get out around the conceptualization.  After much talk about going inside my world, my space, my mind, the trainer once said, “All the stuff out there needs cleaning up.”  Or, at another point: “Stay with your experience.  Stay out there, not in your head.”  That is the right way to talk.  I am back there in the past, out there in the present, and ahead of myself in the future, not inside my head.  Even moods are not inside.  As Heidegger points out: “…A mood is not an inner condition which then reaches forth in an enigmatic way and puts its mark on things and persons.  It comes neither from ‘outside’ nor ‘inside’ but arises out of Being-in-the-world. (p. 176).  All that is inside are the aches and pains in my physical body.  So in the est training processes, subjectivism and meditation notwithstanding, when we are not practicing awareness we should be told to go out into our space.

Of course, this is not to deny that I have opinions and desires which are mine and that you have yours and that I should try to understand yours and to let them be, it is only to emphasize that all this communication takes place on a shared background of public language and practices which has created and sustains both of us and our communication. 

Communication’ in which one makes assertions – giving information, for instance – is a special case of that communication which is grasped in principle existentially.  In this more general kind of communication, the articulation of Being with one another understandingly is constituted.  Communication is never anything like a conveying of experiences, such as opinions or wishes, from the interior of one subject into the interior of another. (p. 205)

  1. The clearing is not the totality of objects.

Heidegger is very careful to distinguish the world, which is the space in which we encounter other entities, from the universe which is the totality of what is.  For the same reason, in Division II he equates the ultimate empty temporal openness with Being, but never with the totality of beings.  Thus Heidegger agrees with the equation of Being and Nothing, but he would object to the equation of Nothing and Everything. 

If one does equate Nothing and Everything and experiences the fact that we are Nothing, it seems to follow that we can experience that we are everything.  (The same goes for the equation of Nowhere and Everywhere.)  This leads to the process in which we expand our awareness to encompass the whole universe.  This is both a linguistic confusion and an experiential lie.  I can think about or conceive the furthest galaxy; I cannot perceive it.  To say I am aware of it or conscious of it confuses conception and perception.  If I were aware of it in anything but an intellectual sense, I would not have to say, as the trainer did say, that there might be life on one of the other solar systems, I could look and see if there was.

A holistic account such as that proposed by est cannot explain how we are some particular point of view at some particular place and time.  This difficulty arises for any view that claims that we are ultimately all one thing: God, an empty space, or the empty ecstatic temporal horizon.  Heidegger’s answer, I think, is that we are individuated by the facticity for which we assume responsibility.  For Heidegger, inauthentic Dasein is lived by the Anyone and so has no content of its own; on the other hand, authentic Dasein becomes an individual by taking responsibility for some particular content.   Est, however, cannot individuate “the being” in this way, since, if Nothing equals Everything, everyone is responsible for everything.

The above ontological inadequacy of the est conceptualization of Being occurs because the training blurs what Heidegger calls the ontological difference – the difference between Being and beings.  The same problem comes up in even more exaggerated form on the ontic or empirical level in the est account of mind.  If the mind is a multi-sensorial total record of everything in the universe, how does one record differ from another so that they can be linearly ordered?  One might think that one record has me as a baby, another me as a child, another me as an adult, etc.; but every record has me as all three.  Since the records are all total, they are all identical and there is no way to order them.  Such a view cannot make sense of “successive moments of now.”  (Husserl in his Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness solved this problem in terms of the relative clarity and distinctness of the moments we call most recent but this way out is not open to the view presented here, since all records are equally and totally clear.)

Of course, the same problem comes up when one wants to differentiate a plurality of points of view.  Since each record contains all points of view, all perceptual perspective, all pains, etc., there is no way to explain what makes one of the points of view mine, or why one record stack comes down on me, when I see a bicycle, for example, rather than on you, since the bike trauma is in your stack too.  In what sense is my stack mind and your stack yours?

There are hints in the training that the view that everyone is everything also leads to a misleading account of skills.  In discussing the cabinet of abilities the trainer gave the impression that one could be perfect at any skill one pleased if one just stopped resisting and covering up and got in touch with the ability.  It would, indeed, follow that if my being is everything, it is also all skills.  But this seems to deny the necessity of acquiring a skill through years of practice.  I have argued elsewhere (see enclosed paper, “The Psychic Boom”) that skills might well be explained in terms of holograms, but that these holograms are the result of the specific experiences of the specific individual who practices the particular skill.  One eventually acquires enough holograms of an activity to be able to perform perfectly if one could only let oneself go and just experience the activity rather than think about it, but this perfection is only accessible to those who have put in the necessary effort to acquire the necessary background of experience.

Another implausible conclusion that follows from the equality of Nothing and Everything, is that each person is responsible for Everything.  Granted we all are identical with the clearing or God and so are all one, it does not follow that we are responsible for every specific thing and person in the clearing.  To be the clearing in which all specific events occur, and so in some ontological sense their source, is not the same as being the ontic cause of each specific event.  It is, therefore, a self-deception to assume responsibility for all events, and as we have already seen, such total responsibility would preclude individuality.

All these problems arise from forgetting the ontological difference and identifying the clearing with everything in the clearing.  This mistake gains plausibility from a pseudo-scientific theory of mental holograms.  It is an interesting hypothesis that our mind might consist of holograms, and a hologram, as scientists like Karl Pribram and David Bohm rightly point out, has the whole of what is on it distributed all over it.  It does not follow, however, that each hologram contains a record of the whole universe.  It simply contains all over it a record of one limited local perspective.  Even if one accepts David Bohm’s interpretation of micro-physics that the universe is an “implicate order” in which everything is involved with everything else, this still would not support the view of the mind presented in the est training.  Only if the brain, which is part of the physical order, processed information on the microphysical level, for which I know of no evidence, would it follow that brain holograms are total records of everything in the universe. 

Unless the metaphysical contradictions which holism entails can be avoided, the view is not only implausible in suggesting we are aware of other galaxies, past lives, etc.; it is totally incoherent

II.  External Assessment: The power and poverty of nihilism.
After writing Being and Time, Heidegger experienced a transformation (Kehre) in his life and thought.  In looking back at Being and Time he felt that he had been right in holding that human beings are ultimately a clearing which is more flexible and open than that provided by the stereotypical meanings and differentiations of the public world of the Anyone.  But later Heidegger felt that equating this broader horizon with an empty temporal disclosure space could not give an adequate account of the meaning and differentiation that remains after one has transformed one’s life out of the public world into an openness to Being.  In short, Heidegger came to regard the equation of Being and Nothing as a nihilistic remnant which remained in his thinking because he had not completely overcome his own metaphysical/mystical tradition. 

This is not the place to go into Heidegger’s later writings.  All I can do is note that he admired poets like Nietzsche and Rilke who thought they could free man from technology and mechanism by opening a pure empty space, but that he felt this approach and the approach of Being and Time were still part of the problem – the problem of nihilism.  In response to this problem he saw he had to give up hermeneutic phenomenology and experience Being historically.  He hoped thereby to discover and preserved the serious meaning left in our practices from other epochs in our past such as 5th century Athens. 

Heidegger describes how cultural paradigms such as the Greek temple and the medieval cathedral give life meaning and purpose by focusing the meaning of being in the practices, holding it up for the people to see and experience, and making it to the center of genuine conflicts of interpretation.
It is the temple-work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being.  The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people. (“Origin of the Work of Art” p. 42)
In this way great works of art preserve and give content to the clearing.  “A work, by being a work, makes space for that spaciousness.  ‘To make space for’ means here especially to liberate the free space of the open region and to establish it in its structure.  …The work holds open the Open of the world.”  (“Origin of the Work of Art” p. 45)

As I understand est, it is at the stage of Division II of Being and Time.  It allows people to break out of the Anyone and the mechanism of their mind by realizing the power of pure nothingness in them.  They realize they are nothing and so not the mechanism.  They can then choose the mechanism (return to the Anyone) where “choose” means notice and accept responsibility for.  They can thus become free, flexible, spontaneous, alive and joyful.  But this experience does not help them get back in touch with their cultural roots.  Its effect is just the opposite.  Their projects become global projects all can agree on (making the world work).  They do not involve commitment to specific content and so do not lead to conflicts of interpretation.  Each person has a point of view but he is not identified with it.  I observe my point of view.  You get mine and I get yours.  Then we all work on something like eliminating hunger which involves no risk and about which there can be no legitimate disagreement.

Later Heidegger has discovered that this kind of commitment to clarity and open-mindedness – as in Being and Time – is kind of nihilism and that obscurity and concrete commitments are necessary if life is to have meaning and seriousness.  In his essay on the Greek temple he says:
Ever decision … bases itself on something not mastered, something concealed, confusing; else it would never be a decision.     (p. 55)

To put the point another way, in Being and Time all commitments although firm are conditional.  One struggles with adversity, sticks with it, keeps one’s agreements, but one is also ready to let go.  “The certainty of the resolution signifies that one holds oneself free for the possibility of taking it back ….” (p. 355).   This is definitely a higher quality of life than people unaided by est even glimmer.  But it poses the problem: If everything is equal why struggle at all; if everything that is simple is, why not abandon the team when the going gets tough?  Even late Heidegger could not answer this question. 
Another thinker, Soren Kierkegaard, who greatly influenced Heidegger, had already transcended the experience that all positionality was inauthentic and that, therefore, holding on to anxiety and being outside all content and all commitment was authentic.  He experienced instead the truth that only if one holds some concerns so unconditionally as to be ready to die for them is life worth living.  This does not mean that one tries to get everyone to share one’s commitment as if it were an objective truth.  One gets over that in holding onto anxiety.  After one has experienced nothingness, being ready to die for a truth no longer means being willing to kill for it. 

Est, like Being and Time, supports unconditional commitment, but that commitment which est calls love and Heidegger calls resoluteness, is only the commitment to stay open to the openness of other, to respect their space.  One never identifies oneself with any concrete content and thereby risks a conflict of interpretations, since in the est conceptualization and experience that could only mean returning to ego.  Nothing makes any ultimate difference and the only experience that matters is the one that gets one in touch with nothingness.  Such openness may well give one health, happiness, love and self-expression never dreamt of in everyday conformity or fanaticism, but it does not give one’s life meaning.  Heidegger himself, although he defines Dasein as the being whose being is an issue for it, never works out an adequate account of how an individual life can be meaningful.  For a powerful conceptualization of the experience of meaningfulness with its paradox, risk, dread, and bliss, one has to turn to the writings of Soren Kierkegaard. 

The est training, as Erhard well knows, is much more than a means for psychological or social change.  It deals with improving the quality of human life – the most important philosophical and religious question of any age, and especially important in our present technological nihilistic world.  It seems to me that Heidegger has dealt more successfully than est with this challenge on a conceptual level, and that he is more aware of the limitations of his view.  Est’s unique importance, however, is not in its theory but in its practice.  The training, unlike a reading of Being and Time, actually gives a person a glimpse of the authenticity that Heidegger and Erhard have both experienced. 

This is not to say that the Heidegger/Erhard experience of the power of nothingness is what is most needed in our nihilistic time.  But it is a step forward out of the indifference of everydayness, and makes it possible to discuss, and perhaps even to experience, a way of life which has aliveness as well as content and meaning.  



In order to focus on the deep philosophical agreement which unites Heidegger and Erhard, and to see how each can be used to complete the other, I have put aside in the body of my report my more personal philosophical repose to some of the less central ideas presented in the training.  I will present my remaining questions and disagreements in the following two appendices. 


  1. “Hell is Other People.”

During the first weekend an explanation was promised of the basic motivation behind the loneliness, sadness, fear, grief, anger, hatred, boredom, shame, etc. that emerged in the truth process.  I was surprised, given est’s suspicion of causal accounts in psychology, that the trainer was going to present a position or explanation, and even more surprised at the end of the weekend when the ultimate motivation turned out to be fear of others.  This claim seems dubious not only in the light of the methodological contradiction, but also in respect to what it specifically asserts. 
There seems to be no way that one could assert the general claim that “All people play roles and suffer because they are motivated by fear of other people” as an experiential truth.  One could legitimately claim to know that this analysis has been experienced as true and liberating by 300,000 est graduates.  But not that it was true for everyone, as the trainer, David Norris, asserted in conversation. 

As a substantive philosophical proposal the theory seems over-simple.  It has a venerable history having been held by Thomas Hobbes (“Every man fears violent death at the hands of his fellows”) and, in a more subtle form by Sartre, who contends that each consciousness is afraid of being turned into an object by the other’s gaze.  This latter seems to be the est position since the fear theory immediately follows the “ordeal” in which one must submit to the gaze of the others and just be.  Sartre’s solution is also echoed in the advice given at the very end of the first weekend.  Sartre says that we must realize we can prevent others from turning us into objects by turning them into objects first – in other words: “Be dangerous!”

Perhaps my critique of est’s apparent fall from subtle Heidegger, in which the real fear is meaninglessness, into simplistic Sartre, is irrelevant, since at the beginning of the second weekend we are told to forget the claims made during the first weekend.  The final word seems to be that instead of the war of each consciousness with each other consciousness which is the last word in Sartre, we are shown that we are all aspects of one Being so that we all participate in each others lives. 

The question then arises:  Why then pass through the Sartrian story?  The answer is, I think, that there is, indeed, a plurality of minds or egos, each of which does, for its own survival, will the death of the others.  But each of us is not his ego but participates in one being.  This is an interesting and original synthesis of the experiences of Heidegger and Sartre. 

  1. The Banalization of Miracles.

Dostoyevsky has a profound view of miracles, identical to the one offered by est, viz. that miracles transform the quality of a life.  In the The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha goes to visit Grushenka.  He finds her trying to decide between two equally self-destructive ways of acting.  By being with her and accepting her as she is, Alyosha opens up a new creative possibility for her which was literally inconceivable to her a moment before.  Dostoyevsky calls this creation ex-nihilo a miracle. 
My only criticism of est on this point is that this rare understanding of miracles as the occurrence of something literally inconceivable, not just improbable, should not be cheapened by equating miracles with the occurrence of fortunate improbable opportunities such as getting a last minute plane ride from Omaha to Denver, or a parking place in downtown San Francisco.

  1. Pseudo-intimacy.

A more far-reaching problem for me is the leveling of the intimate and the public that takes place during and after the est training.  That the group should be on a first name basis by the end of the training seems honest and natural; but that, at the beginning, perfect strangers should be on a first name basis denies the fact that we do have many impersonal relations, and so undermines the true intimacy that comes from opening up to others and letting them be themselves with us.  Laurel Scheaf said in the course of the training that she knew the 300,000 est graduates intimately, and that Werner loves us.  Even if we all participate in and are aspects of one Nothingness, I find it hard to understand how I can be loved by someone whom I have never met. 

  1. The Language of Commitment.

     There is a whole philosophy of language incorporated in the est training which requires a study of its own.  On the one hand est has a dramatic Heideggerian sense of the way people use ambiguity to hide from themselves and others.  No doubt such people need to be made aware that language requires clarity and involves commitment.  In the training they are, indeed, constantly shown what they are saying and what agreements they are making in their speech acts.  But language is much more than the exchange of precise information, and ambiguity and metaphor cannot and should not be eliminated.  That ambiguity cannot be eliminated becomes ironically clear when the training has recourse to a dictionary definition to “clarify” discipline, etc.  Such definitions leave the notion as imprecise as ever.  One cannot even precisely define “chair”.  In any case definitions are never as helpful or precise as what Wittgenstein called a paradigm case or perspicuous example.  One of the impressive ways est works, in spite of its seeming dependence on definitions, is to elicit perspicuous examples from the participations.

(The subtlety of language, even of grammar, was revealed in an episode in which the trainer was trying to free a trainee by getting him to substitute “and” for “because” in the claim: “I am impotent because I lack confidence.”  The trainee dutifully changed his claim to “I am impotent and I lack the (sic) confidence.”  The trainer never understood why this change did not produce the desired effect.)


Sophistry as a transformational technique.

For a philosophy professor one of the most impressive features of the est Training is that the training often resembles an ideal philosophy class.  The participants are asked to provide definitions which are then shown to be incomplete so that step by step bewilderment and then deeper understanding emerges.  A further admirable characteristic connected with this first one is the trainer’s constant readiness to explain, clarify, elaborate, and argue for the conceptualization being presented.  There seems to be a genuine commitment to reaching rational agreement.  On the other hand, est demonstrates a justified suspicion of arguments and rationalization, thus there is a kind of tension in the Socratic pretense.  Philosophical problems are posed and accounts are elaborated and defended, but there seems to be no commitment to using valid arguments in the process.
I will give a few examples, although this list is by no means exhaustive. 

  1. The exchange on not know to walk is pure sophistry.  The dictionary defines knowing how as having the ability to do something.  It does not require that to know how to do something one must able to tell how.  If the trainer has recourse to the dictionary in other cases then why not here? “Knowing - that" does require being able to tell. If one knows something like the way to the bank, one must be able to explain it.  Perhaps the example could be reconstructed using a case of ''knowing that” which the participant is unable to explain or define rather than a case of "knowing how.” Concentrating on knowing that, Socrates had no trouble showing that the most brilliant Athenians did not know anything at all.
  2. The chart showing that the two kinds of reality are physical and experiential leaves out the realm of ideal entities such as numbers.  It does not suffice to say that all instances of the number two, for example, are printed tokens.  The debate between nominalism and realism, as it was called in the Middle Ages, is much more subtle than that.  Not that I think est trainers should enter into such a debate.  I would only hope there was some more intellectually honest way to avoid it. 
  3. The arguments against people who claim not to have ‘got it’ that they are machines have a ring of desperation.  To tell someone to decide to stand up and then to point out to him that he is still sitting and to conclude from this that, like a machine he cannot do what he decides to do, is pathetic.  He presumably has decided to stand up when told to do so and he is doing exactly what he has decided to do. 
  4. A more complicated case is the claim that the trainer is standing in front of the room because he is seen, not seen because he is standing in front of the room.  Great philosophers such as Bishop Berkeley have been confused by that one.  Still, if one is doing phenomenology one must acknowledge, as Heidegger does in The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, that one sees objects as independent of one’s seeing them, and as seen at the same time by others.  To deny this is to make the public world an illusion which is counter to the deeper truth experienced both by Heidegger and by est.

Hubert Dreyfus' Assessment of The est Training

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