Understanding Existentialism
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Understanding Existentialism

Dr. Jack Reynolds

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Understanding Existentialism

Dr. Jack Reynolds

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Understanding Existentialism provides an accessible introduction to existentialism by examining the major themes in the work of Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and de Beauvoir. Paying particular attention to the key texts, Being and Time, Being and Nothingness, Phenomenology of Perception, The Ethics of Ambiguity and The Second Sex, the book explores the shared concerns and the disagreements between these major thinkers. The fundamental existential themes examined include: freedom; death, finitude and mortality; phenomenological experiences and 'moods', such as anguish, angst, nausea, boredom, and fear; an emphasis upon authenticity and responsibility as well as the denigration of their opposites (inauthenticity and Bad Faith); a pessimism concerning the tendency of individuals to become lost in the crowd and even a pessimism about human relations more generally; and a rejection of any external determination of morality or value. Finally, the book assesses the influence of these philosophers on poststructuralism, arguing that existentialism remains an extraordinarily productive school of thought.

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Existentialism, perhaps to an extent unprecedented in the history of philosophy, has managed to capture the attention of the general public. Estimates of the number of people at Jean-Paul Sartre’s funeral in 1980 vary from 50,000 to 100,000, and this was well after his cultural and intellectual heyday. Simone de Beauvoir’s famous treatise on the situation of women, The Second Sex, has been one of the most widely read non-fiction books of the twentieth century. Existential plays and novels – in particular Sartre’s Nausea and Albert Camus’s The Outsider – have been read voraciously and critically acclaimed. Sartre and his more academically inclined colleague Maurice Merleau-Ponty were the co-editors of the influential magazine Les Temps modernes, which considered all things philosophical, political and aesthetic, providing an intellectual point of reference for much of France. Without quite the same mainstream accessibility, or the literary bent (notwithstanding his preoccupation with poetry), Martin Heidegger has been enormously influential on generations of philosophers, as well as people working in cognitive science and artificial intelligence, and his work has helped to spawn at least two very significant contemporary philosophical movements: hermeneutics and deconstruction.
There are obviously many reasons for this primarily philosophical phenomenon capturing the attention of the public in the way that existentialism did, not least the Second World War and the German occupation of France, which intensified existential concerns with freedom, responsibility and death. The literary manifestations of existentialism also allowed a greater proportion of people to possess at least a tentative grasp of what it meant and certainly a greater grasp than might have been attained through the sometimes obscure philosophy of Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and de Beauvoir. These four philosophers will be the main focus of this book, and this means that chronologically we will be concerned with the post-Heideggerians, or what we might term the atheistic existentialists, although it will soon become clear that atheism is not a necessary component of existential thought. This book could alternatively be called “Understanding Existential Phenomenology” because all of these philosophers are significantly indebted to the phenomenological project, even if they also contest the “pure” phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. But without digressing unduly in justifications of the thinkers to be considered here, this book will focus on these roughly contemporaneous philosophers because of the conviction that it is the exchange of ideas between them that reveals existentialism in both its most sophisticated and also its most diverse forms.
Many of the important philosophical ancestors to these philosophers will be briefly discussed in this introduction, including the nineteenthcentury philosophers SĂžren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as the early-twentieth-century thinkers Husserl, Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel. Some of the main themes that have preoccupied these early existential thinkers will be introduced (recognizing that their responses to such themes has not been unified and consensual), particularly in relation to the aspects of their work that have also been taken up by subsequent incarnations of existentialism. Proceeding in this way allows this introduction to serve as primer for much of what will follow in the heart of this book, and some of the fundamental existential themes to be dealt with include:
‱ freedom;
‱ death, finitude and mortality;
‱ phenomenological experiences and “moods”, such as anguish (or anxiety), nausea and boredom;
‱ an emphasis on authenticity and responsibility as well as the tacit denigration of their opposites (inauthenticity and bad faith);
‱ a suggestion that human individuality tends to be obscured and denied by the common social mores of the crowd, and, arguably, a pessimism about human relations per se (owing to the influence of Hegel’s master–slave dialectic on Sartre and de Beauvoir);
‱ a rejection of any external determination of morality or value, including certain conceptions of God and the emphasis on rationality and progress that were foregrounded during the Enlightenment.
Of course, these formulations are approximate and await more nuanced handling in the main body of the book, which will compare and contrast the “existential phenomenologists” on these six themes, with the intention of exploring their many areas of disagreement and discord while nevertheless revealing the shared areas of concern that give existentialism its integrity as a discernible moment in the history of philosophy.
One difficulty with such a project is that the term “existentialism” was not initially used by any of these philosophers, and it does not appear in any of the canonical texts of the tradition: neither in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness nor in Heidegger’s Being and Time. In fact, the term was initially coined by Marcel, describing Sartre and others, and it only came to be accepted by Sartre and de Beauvoir a couple of years later in 1945. Merleau-Ponty never accepted the label wholeheartedly, whereas Heidegger vehemently rejected it. It is hence difficult to argue that existentialism represents a single, unified philosophical movement, although Sartre’s famous comment that “existence precedes essence” is perhaps a good starting-point, even if this dictum has also been used by many other philosophers – such as Ayn Rand – for decidedly different purposes. We might summarize Sartre’s comment as suggesting that human existence is notable for the fact that we are always ahead of ourselves, and “on the way”, with various projects, intentions and aspirations for the future. Rather than our identity being determined by our biological or social status, existentialism insists that our identity must be continually created, and there is a resultant emphasis on our freedom or, in the preferred philosophical vocabulary of the existentialists, our transcendence.
In various different ways this insistence is common to all existential theorists, but what will become more obvious as this book progresses is that there are many other shared areas of concern between these existential theorists in relation to the above six points, and there is certainly clear interactions between them. Sartre famously draws on Heidegger, usually quite uncritically, whereas Heidegger very critically responds to Sartre in places. Merleau-Ponty often writes in direct response to Sartre, even if his criticisms of Sartre are subtler than those of, say, Heidegger. In her work, de Beauvoir responds to and develops the work of both Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, while also offering an account of the phenomenological experience of the look that preceded and influenced Sartre’s more famous account of it. However, before beginning to analyse the position of these theorists in any detail, some important historical influences on these twentieth-century thinkers need to be considered.
Some key early existential thinkers and themes
Kierkegaard and religion
Existentialism is most frequently traced backed to the Danish Christian philosopher Sþren Kierkegaard (1813–55), and not without good reason. In texts such as Either/Or (1843), Philosophical Fragments (1844) and Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), Kierkegaard challenges the Enlightenment emphasis on rationality, as well as the rampant systematization of Hegelian dialectics. Whereas Merleau-Ponty argues that the early work of Hegel, such as The Phenomenology of Spirit, could be described as a forerunner of existentialism (SNS: 66), Kierkegaard holds the opposite position. For him, the later Hegelian insistence that the movement of history follows a logical and dialectical necessity (this idea was later appropriated and transformed by Karl Marx) obscures the significance of individual existence. In contrast to this kind of account, Kierkegaard instead espouses a highly subjective account of meaning, which rejects doctrinaire and orthodox Christianity that seeks to preach the truth to the people.
The son of a minister, Kierkegaard holds that believing in God will always involve an individual choice, and an individual “leap of faith”, and he goes so far as to argue that true religious faith is antithetical to the demands of public organizations such as the church. As he eloquently suggests, the Christian tradition requires that the believer “dance on the point of the paradox” that God, through Christ, walked among men. According to him, this paradox (that the infinite could become finite), and indeed the experience of God per se, cannot be resolved through conceptual thought or institutionalized religion, because the reality that we subjectively experience in faith is incapable of rational synthesis (against Hegel). In other words, for Kierkegaard, what is involved in a life of faith cannot be refuted, or for that matter validated, by conventional logic. It is not the doctrine of Christianity but the example of Christ that is all important, in that it highlights that the resolution of the religious paradox – and the tensions and contradictions of all existence – can only be accomplished through a radical leap of faith in which the individual makes that paradox meaningful through a lived commitment to a course of action. While the philosophy of religion has traditionally sought to reconcile faith and reason, Kierkegaard takes the opposite path and insists on their incompatibility; that is, on an absolute discontinuity between the human and the divine. Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, for example, dramatically highlights the incommensurability of these orders through an analysis of the biblical story of Abraham’s decision to sacrifice Isaac and the “madness” that it entails from the perspective of the human order.
Of course, it needs to be recognized that, at least on a superficial understanding of the post-Heideggerian existentialists, existentialism might seem to deny the possibility of faith: something that, in his own way, Kierkegaard very much held on to. After all, Sartre and most of his French compatriots were atheists, even if Merleau-Ponty was a Catholic for some time. However, it is worth pointing out that even Sartre suggests that the declaration of atheism is not a necessary component of existential thought. This is because existentialism is not, or at least is not intended to be, metaphysics. It is not a metaphysical attempt to explain and categorize what is the world and what is the beyond, and it hence does not seek to prove or disprove God. While ontological, cosmological and teleological attempts to prove the existence of God may be seen to miss the point, it should be noted that, for Kierkegaard, God is simply the unknown and he hence avoids the trap that he thinks afflicts much theology: presuming that rational discourse can make the religious experience comprehensible.
As well as Kierkegaard, existentialism has spawned several other religious figures including the Protestant Karl Jaspers and the Catholic Gabriel Marcel, both of whom are considered below. Within the theological tradition proper, Rudolph Bultmann and Paul Tillich have been productively associated with existential concerns. If faith involves nothing more than believing in something without proof, then this is very much necessary to existential thought, for which there are no external facts or values that dictate our action although we are nevertheless confronted with the necessity of acting and choosing. Without the guidance of universal rules of morality, human nature or a knowable God who has issued certain indisputable commandments (and various theologies can agree with that), we must endow the world with meaning and it is only we who can do this. We must make this leap of faith: create the meaning in which we seek to live. Every act, then, which is not compromised by a form of what Sartre calls “bad faith”, can be seen as a type of faith: as a commitment to act in the face of “nothingness” and not pretend that things are compelled or necessitated, whether it be socioculturally or biologically.
Importantly, Kierkegaard was also one of the first to highlight the philosophical significance of experiences like despair and dread, both of which are forerunners of Heideggerian “Angst” and Sartrean anguish. For Kierkegaard, an individual choice, or act of self-determination, is inevitably accompanied by an experience of dread, in which we realize that rational calculation will never be sufficient to provide the answers to the religious paradox, or to other issues of major existential significance in our lives (such as whether or not Kierkegaard should leave his bride to be, Regina), much less to motivate us to adopt any particular course of action on the basis of that deliberation. Interestingly, the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida draws on Kierkegaard’s account of the decision and we will examine his position in Chapter 7. For the moment it is enough to ascertain that from Kierkegaard’s perspective reflection involves a withdrawal into uncertainty, and as such is almost inevitably accompanied by despair.
It is worth emphasizing, however, that Kierkegaard’s “subjectivism” – and indeed any subjectivism or individualism that might be ascribed to existentialism more generally – cannot be equated with the liberal emphasis on free choice that pervades contemporary capitalist culture and arguably does not take seriously the kinds of consequences that radical freedom of choice entails on both a personal and a moral level. For Kierkegaard, we need to live and endure with, and not against, the tension of a belief – that is, in despair – and not dogmatically and happily resolve a paradoxical belief into either a final objective truth or a flippant consumerist whim.
Kierkegaard’s work is also preoccupied with something that concerns more recent existential thought: the distinction between an authentic and an inauthentic life. For him it is the inauthentic life that dominates. Most people flee from this despair and anguish of decision-making into inauthentic modes of existence: the aesthetic and the ethical, in the terms of his book Either/Or.
KEY POINT Kierkegaard’s three life stages
‱ The aesthetic stage embraces the sensuous moment, pleasure and beauty, but is said to be trivial.
‱ The ethical stage tries to legitimate absolute moral standards based on societal mores, or rationality, but is said to be merely transitory.
‱ The religious stage involves the person on their own, divested of their reliance on social customs, and without the self-assuredness and dogmatism of the ethical stage.
A transition from one stage to the next stage again requires a leap, or a radical change in direction; it cannot be accomplished incrementally through rational development, block upon block. Kierkegaard insists that the root of any genuine morality that is not mere convention lies in the third religious stage: the individual on their own. It does not lie in “herd morality”, in which the individual merely believes what others believe, nor in establishing some external guarantor of value, whether it be God, wealth, power or even rationality. Kierkegaard’s insistence that morality resides more in the character and attitudes of the person who is acting (a kind of “virtue ethics”, to use the contemporary parlance), rather than in whether or not a certain action maximizes the overall happiness of a society (utilitarianism), or respects each singular person as an “end in themselves” (Kantian ethics), is one of the enduring insights of existentialism generally.
Although some important questions remain about whether or not too much of a preoccupation with the individual as the foundation of morality can in fact preclude the ethical, it needs to be noted that as well as this pessimism about other people that underpins Kierkegaard’s writings, a definite pessimism about the prospect of death also pervades his work. Many members of Kierkegaard’s family died of various illnesses before they were 30, and he was convinced that the family curse would also get him (he managed to reach 42). As a consequence, his life was lived in the shadow of this approaching death. Ad hominem arguments aside – that is, arguments that evaluate the person, rather than the idea – this feeling of impending death that Kierkegaard describes has been given a sustained philosophical analysis by Heidegger, as we will shortly see.
Nietzsche, ressentiment and the death of God
Whereas Kierkegaard turns to the “inner” rather than the “outer”, this is not the case for the famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Presaging some aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of embodiment, Nietzsche affirms the importance of the body and of what is ostensibly “outer”. Moreover, while Kierkegaard reinvented a version of both God and Christianity, Nietzsche repeats Ludwig Feuerbach’s declaration that God is dead and castigates Christianity for encouraging a form of what he calls “slave morality”. Whereas Kierkegaard casts himself as a latter-day version of Socrates, Nietzsche denounces Socrates as also exhibiting this kind of slave morality, or what, from the individual in question’s perspective, he terms ressentiment. This French term, which is not suitably translated in the English “resentment”, basically suggests that both culturally and philosophically the Western tradition has tacitly perpetuated an attitude of disgust for life.
According to Nietzsche’s quasi-historical genealogy in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), this started when the Christian slaves turned inwards, and posited a soul – an interior mental reserve – as a last resort in order to allow them to escape from, and eventually turn the tables on their more powerful Greco-Roman oppressors, who were clearly in control in the physical realm. Whereas these “nobles” proclaimed, metaphorically, their own greatness before denigrating those lesser (what Nietzsche calls the “good–bad morality of masters”), the Christians first of all denigrated their oppressors as evil and only secondarily affirmed themselves as good by contrast (what Nietzsche calls the “good–evil morality of slaves”). The former is affirmative: the latter is negative and tends towards bitterness, because so much time and energy is invested in denigrating those who have control. Nietzsche wants to reject this latter tendency and instead valorize life, although he is not naive enough, at least after The Birth of Tragedy (1872), to believe that any simple return to the Greeks and master morality is possible (his notorious notion of the Ubermensch, or overman, is not reducible to master morality).
Importantly, Nietzsche also focuses on the problems of his age, particularly as they were manifest in Germany and Europe, and he is not very concerned with traditional academic disputes. Rather, he is concerned with morals and values. Claiming that no one before him, philosopher or otherwise, had seen that morality was a problem, in that morality always serves immoral ends, he calls for a revaluation of all values and asserts that there is no final arbiter of v...