Roots of the Western Self
In order to situate the movement of existentialism within the context of recent European thought, we first have to go back to the earliest philosophical and religious currents that shaped the western worldview. Understanding that it is impossible to compress the complexities of the last three millennia into a few pages, one can make the broad claim that the conflicting traditions of Hebraic faith on the one hand and Greek reason on the other have informed our sense of who we are. Both traditions offer the idea of the human being as unique to the extent that we are self-conscious and have “higher” potentialities, which allow us to surpass or transcend our finite earthly existence (e.g. Dreyfus 2009; 2012). In the tradition of Greek philosophy, transcendence was achieved from a position of rational detachment, which allowed the philosopher to rise above the temporal particularities of existence in order to gain knowledge of the universal, that is, of timeless and abstract forms or essences. In the Hebraic tradition, the experience of transcendence is understood not in terms of detached reason but in terms of an intense faith and trust in an incomprehensible God. This kind of faith can lead to confusion and despair, because the Hebrew God is beyond rational understanding and is often cruel and violent. This is why, as William Barrett points out, there is a certain “uneasiness” in the biblical interpretation of the human condition that is not found in Greek philosophy (1958, 71). The human creature depicted there is one that is frail and finite, standing naked and exposed before an unknowable God. In this sense, Job is the paradigmatic biblical figure. He confronts the calamitous trials that God has put before him, and he does so not with detached reason but with the involved fullness of his whole being and all the confusion, rage, and despair that comes with it. But, through it all, his commitment to God remains passionate and unwavering, and it is by means of his faith that he is transformed. His anguish turns to awe in the face of God’s infinite and incomprehensible majesty. In this way we are introduced to the idea that the infinite and eternal can be revealed in passionate commitments that are finite and temporal. Thus there is little discussion of heaven, the immortality of the soul, or the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible. Transcendence is found not in an otherworldly realm but in the concrete commitments of the whole person, body and soul, who inhabits this world. This idea of transcendence conflicts radically with the views of Plato and the traditions of Greek philosophy.
For Plato (429–347 bc), transcendence is not attained by the passionate faith of the whole person. It is achieved when reason, the “higher” or divine part of the soul, rises above the “lower,” animal part, above the fleeting perceptions and passions of the body. This rational detachment makes theoretical knowledge possible, where “contemplation” (theōria) is understood as a kind of disembodied seeing or reflection. For Plato, the essential truths that philosophy discovers have the same form as the immutable truths of geometry and arithmetic. In this way the philosopher becomes a disinterested spectator who transcends the contingent sensations of the body and comes to have a God’s-eye view of reality. This view allows him access to abstract Forms (eidē), which represent the timeless and eternal essence of things. Under Plato’s influence, the cognizing mind becomes the absolute authority by discovering an unchanging “reality” that lies behind the transitory “appearances” of the temporal body.
We see, then, that – to simplify the picture – the tradition of Greek reason conflicts with the Judaic worldview in two important ways. First, philosophy à la Plato provides a kind of intellectual protection or salvation from the experience of anguish and dread that is so vital to the Hebrew interpretation of faith. By focusing on knowledge of abstract forms, the philosopher rises above the horrifying predicament that biblical figures such as Job had to face. Second, Greek reason privileges a conception of transcendence that is attained from a disembodied theoretical position. Indeed, for Plato, what distinguishes us as human beings is not our impassioned faith in an unknowable and fearsome God but the soul’s ability to rationally detach from these emotional upheavals. It is only when such detachment is attained that we arrive at a domain of truth that is immutable and timeless. The consequence of these conflicting versions of transcendence is a tension between two conceptions of selfhood in the West, one where the God of Abraham tells us to live one way and the God of Greek reason tells us to live another (Dreyfus 2012, 97). The self, in the words of the Spanish existentialist Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936), emerges as a “conflict” or “contradiction,” pulled apart by an inner struggle between “the heart and the head,” between faith and reason (1954, 260). For figures such as Unamuno, the tragedy of being human lies in part in the fact that this contradiction cannot be eradicated or overcome by separating the abstract truths of reason from the concrete commitments of faith. Such a separation is a denial of the wholeness of the human being and of the anguished uncertainty and doubt at the core of our situation.
From its origins in the ancient Greek world, western philosophy has long perpetuated this separation by regarding the cognizing mind as the essential substance that gives us knowledge of eternal truths and, as a result, the mind itself is conceived of as a substance that is eternal, providing an escape from the temporal vicissitudes of the body. As Plato says in the Phaedo, “[i]f we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything, we must escape from the body, and contemplate things by themselves with the soul itself” (66e). On this view, reason came to be regarded as the supreme and defining characteristic of the human being, and this philosophical assumption remained relatively unscathed until the nineteenth century, when existential philosophers and literary figures began to exhume embodiment, emotion, and historical contingency as being central to the human situation. Indeed, even with the historical rise and spread of Christianity through the Middle Ages, the vision of the human as animal rationale (“rational animal”) endured.
Although early church fathers such as Paul (5 bc–ad 67) and Tertullian (ad 160–220) were still deeply committed to the principle of Hebraic faith, the cultural and political impact of Hellenistic philosophy compelled Christians to come up with an “apologetics,” that is, a discipline of producing rational defenses of their own religious positions and beliefs. Whereas for the Jews and the Greeks faith and reason occupied two incompatible domains, Christians were confronted with both sources of transcendence. And, beginning with St. Augustine (ad 354–430) and continuing over more than a thousand years, Christian theologians engaged with this tension via the Augustinian expression “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum), by showing how the timeless, universal truths of reason work in relation to and in harmony with personal faith (Barrett 1958, 97).
Unfortunately, as Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), father of existentialism avant la lettre, would make clear, the aim of bringing together the conflicting domains of faith and reason was absurd. How, for instance, can one make rational sense of God’s command to Abraham to kill his own son, or of the senseless suffering of Job, or of the intrinsic sinfulness of human beings, or of the incarnation of the God-man? “The problem,” as Kierkegaard writes, “is not to understand Christianity, but to understand that it cannot be understood” (1959, 146). Indeed, Kierkegaard can be viewed as a philosopher who attempts to resuscitate the Hebraic experience of vulnerability and dread, and of transcendence as passionate commitment, by articulating the qualitative difference between the impersonal and objective truths of reason on the one hand and what he calls “the highest truth attainable for an existing individual” (1941, 182) on the other. Truths of the latter kind are subjective, fundamentally uncertain, and inaccessible to logic or reason. Subjective truths cannot be thought; they can only be felt with inward intensity in the course of living one’s life.
We will explore together how Kierkegaard engages with the tension between “subjective” and “objective” truth in chapter 2
, but at this point I want to make clear that at least one thing remained consistent in the historical transition from Hellenism to Christianity. This was the belief that human beings belong to and are dependent upon a divine, value-filled cosmos that provided an enduring moral order, a “great chain of being” that determined the proper function and place of things and how humans ought to act. On this view, the people of Graeco-Christian Europe inhabited an enchanted world filled with magic, deities, and supernatural meaning. This conception of a divine
cosmos provided ready-made answers to the ultimate questions. Who am I? How should I live? What is the meaning of my life? The ability to answer these questions became increasingly difficult in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the premodern orientation began to break down in the wake of a new worldview – namely that of the Enlightenment – once early modern philosophers such as Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), René Descartes (1596–1650), and Isaac Newton (1643–1727) began to lay the scientific groundwork that challenged ideas about the inherent divinity and meaningfulness of the world.
The Emergence of the Modern Worldview
Although this reduction is admittedly simplistic, it is generally agreed that there were three key events that contributed to the historical formation of the modern worldview (e.g. Taylor 1989; 2003; Guignon 2004). The first and, arguably, the most significant one was the advent of modern science. From the perspective of the new science, the cosmos was no longer understood from a teleological angle, as a moral order of absolute ends, but as a valueless aggregate of quantifiable objects colliding with one another. The cosmos became, in the words of German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), “disenchanted,” a vast, all-encompassing machine that operates on the basis of fixed, law-like formulas. The vision of the scientist, on this account, is that of a disinterested observer who impartially collects data and formulates theories. Crucial to this method is the ability to abstract the subjective qualities that we give to things – such as beauty, meaning, purpose, and value – and to focus only on the objective qualities of things, that is, on those qualities that can be measured or quantified – such as mass, velocity, and location in a spatial–temporal coordinate system. On this view, anything in the natural world can now be objectified, examined from a perspective of cool detachment, as an object to be manipulated. This is an explicitly humanistic view, insofar as it revolves around the human being as the knowing “subject” who masters and controls “objects.” Weber summed up the aims of the new science by claiming that “there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather … one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world becomes disenchanted” (1948, 139, my emphasis). Of course, on this view, human beings too can be regarded as quantifiable objects to be manipulated for specific purposes. And human behavior is no longer explained in terms of incalculable meanings or divine ends but in instrumental terms of causality, where every action and event is necessarily determined by a set of antecedent conditions.
Many philosophers of the time regarded the scientific revolution positively. Not only did it liberate human beings from the superstitions and oppressive dogmas of the church; it also provided techniques for increasing our mastery over the natural world. But some philosophers expressed reservation. One of the earliest and most powerful expressions was provided by the proto-existentialist Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), who, although a brilliant physicist and mathematician in his own right, experienced this new mechanistic and deanimated world not with optimism, but with dread. In his Pensées of 1670, he offers a powerful description of a world stripped of any trace of divinity or overarching meaning:
With Pascal, we see the Janus face of modern science. On one hand, it frees human beings from the prejudices and superstitions of religion. On the other hand, this freedom leaves us abandoned and forlorn in a cold and meaningless universe.
A second important development in the formation of the modern worldview was the emergence of a new form of Christianity, Protestantism, which reconfigured the self by privileging the inner states of the soul. Although the emphasis on subjective inwardness...