Ignas was introduced to Alphonso Lingis by another Lithuanian philosopher Algis Mickūnas at the conference “The Everpresent Myth” in Vilnius. They talked in October, 2019 and recorded the interview on camera in a TV studio.


Alphonso, how would you like to be introduced to the audience?

In the most straightforward way. [Laughs] So, I was a professor of philosophy at Pennsylvania State University for most of my career. I quit in 2002.

Would it be proper to call you a philosopher?

Or at least a professor of philosophy. [Laughs]

Have you developed your own world view?

I’m not sure if I developed my world view. But I wrote a lot of books in which I wanted to express what I discovered.

So, how would you describe the world you understand? What would be the essential things defining that world?

Well, I think I came to understand I gave a great deal of importance to chance.

A long time ago, in India, in , where the Buddha preached his first sermon, I was there, and it started to rain a little. And I went under the to take shelter. There was a beautiful Indian man, about 40 years old. He was physically beautiful. He was also impressive in his presence. He was an astrologer. We talked for several hours.

There are three things, he told: freedom, a necessity, and a chance. The astrologer said we have a language about freedom (ethics, and politics), language about necessity (natural sciences). But we don’t have a respectable language about chance. It’s only the horoscope pages in the newspaper.

But in fact, the most critical things occur by chance. For example, a particular sperm joined a particular egg in my mother’s womb. That’s by chance. And if it had joined a different egg, I would have been a different person. And it’s also a chance that I was born without a physical and mental disability.

Many things happen by chance — a person you end up sharing your life or the work you do — all begin by chance. In my case, I became interested in philosophy because my first fascinating philosophy teacher. So, if it had been a different teacher, perhaps I would never be what I am now.

And the illnesses that we suffer, the accidents that we may suffer also occur by chance. I mean, even Ebola fever. Whether you live or die, there is an element of chance, even the most deadly disease.

And, finally, how we die is an element of chance. I came to think that chance is a very fundamental dimension of our existence. People don’t talk about it. In the university, for example, they give you tests to discover what your abilities are. And so, that’s an impression that if you are rational and informed that you have control — you can decide everything in your life. But I think we have to think a good deal about chance.

The attitude toward chance is fundamental. People who engage in risky activities find them very joyful. Some people gamble and find this very joyous. It could be empowering.

I think that is one aspect of the importance of chance. That’s why I don’t like to make plans. And for so many years, I decide where to go in the summer just by accident. And then before I go there, usually I don’t read anything about it. I don’t know anything about it until I get there because I want that first view of a new place, that wow.

Excitement of something unknown and unpredicted is one of the most important pleasures in life. I believe if something is as simple as becoming a parent, you really can’t “create” a child. So when the child is born, there’s an element of surprise: how the child looks, behaves, and so on. The parents feel that it’s a moment of good luck — not planned or predicted.

Later, I learned a lot about risk in medicine. For example, a rather small percentage of premature infants (babies born before 24, 25 weeks) will survive, but a certain number of them won’t even if they are given intensive care. In addition, a rather small percentage will survive and stay in every way healthy.

And then a certain percentage of them will survive with physical or mental disability. In some countries, I think in Holland, they do not even put premature infants into intensive care. They just give them and provide a comfortable existence until they die.

I was never in this situation, and in fact, I don’t even have a close friend in this situation. But when I was reading all that, I was thinking about what it must be for a parent to try to decide, first of all, shall we try to give the child intensive care? Or should we simply provide it with palliative care?

If you’re giving palliative care, maybe for the rest of your life, you will regret not having done everything possible to save your child. And if you decide to save your child, there is a good chance that the child will have severe disabilities. Then you have to ask yourself, first of all, whether you have the financial ability to provide care for a child, whether you have the emotional strength, what the situation will be if you decide to have more children. It is a terrible situation to be in. And again, there isn’t a simple way to resolve it. In the end, you’re going to take the risk, whatever choice you make.

Can you remember situations in your life when you were confronting bad luck?

Well, a long time ago in South India, I’d get violently sick. I thought I would die. I could hardly breathe. I went out at night and found somebody with a rickshaw. He was a foreigner from Nepal. Somehow this foreigner understood that I needed to see a doctor.

So, he took me to the closest town. In other words, he committed himself to take care of me. It was extraordinary because I would never see him again. On the one hand, he was a very poor man. And that event had an enormous impact on me.

Eventually, it turned out that it was some kind of new virus. There was no point in going back to my country because nobody will know about this virus. So, I accepted the situation.

And then a woman provided traditional ayurvedic medicines to me. I recovered after a month. So, I don’t know whether her medication had some effect. Of course, the body heals itself. The doctor helps, but in the end, it is the body that cures itself.

But that night, it would be reasonable to believe that I would die. I didn’t panic. I have lived a good life. [Laughs] I’ve done what I wanted to do. So, I didn’t panic.

But you made some effort.

Yeah, really, the only thing I did is to go out at night and come upon this rickshaw man.

Well, you were thinking enough about thyself, and that produced . Could you present the notion of The First Person Singular?

I have this example; about young people in my university. There was a woman who came from a very low-income family to work as a waitress while she was a student. She loved to dance. But, her parents wanted her to learn something to pay the rent.

So, she was majoring in disabled children education where she would always find a job. Once I met her and her eyes were shining. She said that she decided to change her education and instead took courses in dance. She would have to do extra year at the university. It’s something very risky because there are a small number of places for dancers.

But she was repeating to herself that “I’m a dancer. That’s who I am. When I’m on the dance floor, I’m happiest and that I’m myself.” At the end, she’s not yet a dancer, and maybe she will never be. She’s giving herself an identity, which is also a commitment.

I have a more complex example that impacted me. I am an aquarium hobbyist. The things you buy for fish tanks are expensive. And somebody told me there was a working- class family who sell fish things cheaper in their basement. I was always going there. We became friends.

So, I went there for several years before I discovered that they had children with . Almost all the people who are born with this disease die in infancy. And that’s why they have this little fish business, aquarium business to earn money for the expensive medical care for their daughter. Later, I discovered that their daughter had died at the age of 23. They never thought of leaving their child at an institution. They committed to spend the next 22 years of her life, caring for their daughter.

The mother gave her all of the love and everything she knew for 22 years. And I think if anybody would talk to her, I think that that’s all she would say, “I’m her mother. That’s what I am”. It’s that simple.

To be yourself is a commitment — some people are doctors because it’s very prestigious and pays well. But some people are doctors because they are healers. That’s their whole life.

I remember another example of a hardworking secretary in our philosophy department, a working-class woman. She understood nothing about philosophy. One day, when she was about 40, I think, she decided to quit. Her mother had just died and that she realized that she was very good at caring for her mother in her home.

In other words, to be a nursing person, you have to be a caring person. But you also have to be very responsible, exact and reliable in every way. She was the most competent woman in our whole department as a secretary.

A lot of people don’t have an identity. They never found out who they are. Saying, “I’m a dancer” is a commitment because maybe you’ll never become a dancer.

Can it change?

Oh, definitely. I’ve always admired that somebody halfway through life takes a different path. Not every student had outstanding teachers. I’ve often thought you should just quit and discover what you want, what your nature is. People who take different paths; sometimes may become different personalities.

What worked for you? Is there anything in common? You have tried various things, various research subjects in your life. Is there anything in common?

Like, all my adult life, every chance I get, I visit another country. So, I went to Papua New Guinea. At that time, there was a war in Nicaragua that the United States was very involved in. Later, I often wrote about things that I discovered there.

Very idealistic revolutionaries defeated it, and often people came from other countries with idealistic ideas. It was an inspiring place to be, and it certainly affected my political thinking about human society. Of course, I didn’t go to Papua New Guinea with a specific project in mind.

Did you go there to support those fighters against the regime or?

I went there after this terrible regime was overthrown.

Okay.

Yeah. So, I didn’t contribute anything — I was just a witness. In our lifetime, so many crises have occurred in so many different countries. I was trying to understand how India, Indonesia, and African countries have been changing. So, in all these cases, I didn’t have a ton of academic projects, but I was there.

I was fascinated by the countries. Because I did that, I think my academic work was nonetheless affected too. And it was both ways, like when I read about temples where and are revealed. It’s a philosophical conception. The first time I went to Istanbul and saw these magnificent mosques — they’re full of light. It was so different from the dark churches of Orthodox Christians. And it seemed to me it was a different kind of spirituality, another conception of human beings.

So, I didn’t look at these buildings like a regular tourist looks. Well, you just look at them whether they’re attractive or not. These are places where, I felt, a culture, a mentality and conception of the spirit could be.

Did you see a divine or cultural presentation there? If it’s cultural, then it’s something like a spectacle or something more complex.

Freud said that religion is a collective neurosis, . When I go to a sacred place, in some way, I believe it. I mean, to me, it’s impossible to go to in Paris and think that this is all illusion. I don’t believe every single thing in the doctrine, but I believe that the sublime or the spiritual is real in some way and it’s not just a human idea.

You said very beautifully that, if there was another chance, you would be a different person and perhaps this conversation would not occur in that situation. But do you think that predetermination in terms of karma regarding birth is possible?

Yeah, in some sense, one has determined the place you were born, the time you were born in history, and so on.

After surviving relatives, friends, do you see it as just a pure chance that someone dies and another person lives?

I just see the chance. [Laughs] I read in the newspaper some person who was more than 100 years old, and they ask what the secret is, and there is no special secret that they have.

One may speculate that that is a matter of desire or determination to live, which matters.

Yeah, at some part. I think we can exaggerate that. Everybody says that we have to fight cancer. Or usually, when cancer patients die, people say, after so many years of fighting cancer, they failed. But I don’t know how much you can do to fight something like cancer. Well, of course, your mental state and confidence can help for a lot of illnesses and adverse conditions. That’s obvious.

But in the end, it’s fate. I was in Bhutan last summer, and there was a man of about maybe 50 who had terrible cancer. Doctors gave him a minimal chance of surviving. He was provided a maximum amount of chemotherapy treatment that usually is too dangerous for people. And he suffered terribly, but he survived.

Indeed, he had always been very strong. A small guy, but very competitive, outdoors person, with a very positive attitude. He didn’t complain to anybody, to his wife, or family. So, I think it helped him at least to endure all that suffering without depression or despair.

Alphonso, I had an impression that your relation to chance is special. Maybe you can get a little bit of focus and tell us in your words about your attitude and living practice?

In a certain way, all the important things happen by chance. All the essential things in life are strokes of good or bad luck. We should face that positively. We could find that exhilarating. But many people don’t.

I think more and more people now want to know everything in advance. Before you reserve a hotel room, you read all about the hotel on the internet. If you go on a trip, you plan every stop, every hotel, every bus and so on — every restaurant. I think more and more people want their life to be wholly known and controlled in advance.

Somehow they feel that something unknown or unpredictable will be a negative experience. I think the opposite. I think it can be a positive experience. In my life, I think I’ve never really been afraid of people. I was never scared to walk in the night in a foreign city and so on. And I was mugged a few times, but in the end, they were not bad experiences. Because when someone assaults you, they’re not going to kill you. There’s no sense in that. They just want your money. I would be ready to give the money.

Well, let me recount this experience quickly in Rio de Janeiro. I had been in the hospital for a little surgery. The following morning I was back in my hotel. I got up early and decided to go along the beach to a hotel with a good restaurant and had a good breakfast.

As I’m walking along, it was like 6 a.m. There was this young man who said, “Hello, what time is it?” I looked at my watch. And of course, it was ridiculous because he has no interest in what time it was. He just wanted to stop me. And immediately, there were three or four men around me, and I was just trying to protect my surgery. So, they lifted my wallet and watch. They did it so skillfully that I hardly felt anything. They were covered with cloaks, I couldn’t see their faces.

Anyhow, when it was over, I realized they had not hurt me in any way. Then, as an act of kindness, they gave my wallet back with the credit cards. [Laughs] They were, in fact, impoverished people who just needed to live. The very fact that I’m there proves that I’m rich compared with them. And so, I thought it was an adventure. I wasn’t harmed in any way. I lost $50 maximum, which I could afford.

I felt I couldn’t blame these young kids in any way. It was good that they had the initiative to do what they needed to live. The conventional idea would be that they should just ask me, beg me.

Well, the vast majority of tourists will never be giving them anything. They were dirty street kids. They were young, so they took the initiative to do what they needed to do to get enough to eat. So, I felt it was a very positive experience for me.

People are afraid of anything unpredictable sometimes. They’re fearful of going to another country. They’re scared of being cheated and all that. These could be positive experiences very often.

[Laughs] You find it different, and that’s you, and this is your recipe, and I wouldn’t even try to make a summary of it because it tells for itself. [Laughs] Or is there anything else to add?

I don’t think so.

Good. Thank you very much, Alphonso. Thank you.

Thank you.