EXISTENTIALISM: SOME INTRODUCTORY REMARKS
Copleston, Contemporary Philosophy, Chs IX-XII
Delfgaauw, Twentieth Century Philosophy, Chs 10 and 11.
Mary Warnock, Existentialism.
John Macquarrie, Existentialism,
(A) What is ‘Existentialism”? Some broad characteristics:
· An endeavour at a clarification of human existence: i.e. the real, factual human condition, as it is in fact experienced, taking seriously the temporality, finitude and sometime absurdity of human existence.
: we are not absolute beings floating above reality, but situated in the world with others, and from birth to death, and death is really to die.
· Clarification and description of human existence from within that existence itself, focussing not on reality as a whole but on human beings, and not as an object of knowledge or science, but as manifested as she or he appears to themselves,
: the human being, not as a disembodied existence in isolation as in Descartes or Kant or Husserl, nor as treated in the sciences generally as an ‘object’ to be ‘explained’, but at concrete, embodied human persons, in the world, in relationships with other persons.
· Clarification and description of human existence from within that existence, not just for its own sake but to draw attention to a more authentic style of existence.
Most people live life in a passive, inauthentic way, not taking responsibility for their own existence, living a simple minded, dogmatic life, fleeing into ready-made certainties of tribe and gender and social class and nation.
But the human being is to some degree self-creating, to some degree self-transcending: what I become as a finite, temporal human being depends to some degree on my choices. I am not to be entirely identified with my past, the already made, nor with Das Man (Heidegger), the crowd. Stones are, maybe even God is, but people exist, that is, they ‘ex-(s)ist’ (the latter either from ‘stare’ or from ‘ire’, depending on preference): which is to say, they go out, or stand out, from they project themselves, from their past and from the crowd.
But we can get lost, deny our freedom, choose not to choose, which is itself however already a choice.
To live authentically is to take responsibility for our own life and for all ones involvements.
Compare Sartre: “existence precedes essence”: there is no essence or nature given beforehand to which we have to conform, we are “condemned to be free”, we make ourselves up as we go on.
· Existentialism, finally, is an attempt to philosophize not only about human beings and from within human existence as actually experienced and directed towards more authentic existence, but also from the standpoint of an actor rather than from the standpoint of a spectator.
It is this last characteristic which differentiates them from other philosophers in what we might call the broad “wisdom” or sapiential tradition (versus the ‘knowledge’ tradition) – other philosophers like Plato or Descartes or Spinoza or Hume or Kant or even Marx. Such people are also interested primarily in the clarification of human existence for the sake of living it better – or in Marx’s case, making it better. For the sake of clarifying the human condition, these latter move, pro temp, into the standpoint of an ‘objective’ spectator. For the existentialist philosopher this is not possible, or if possible not desirable.
Existentialists in this respect are more like Augustine in the Confessions or Pascal or Kierkegaard: the goal determines not only what problems we be concerned with but also how we go about throwing light on them. The philosopher here is concerned after all with problems which arise out of her or his own personal existence as an individual human being, who freely shapes their destiny, but seeks clarification in order to do so, problems which have to do with who he or she is or can be, not with the structure of an atom or the motion of the planets. One does not attempt to solve such problems by forgetting oneself or one’s personal involvement and need for choice. These latter are essential elements of the problem, and to forget them, to treat the problem as if it didn’t concern me, is already to move over into inauthenticity. For example, the nature of (true) love and e.g. whether I am ‘in love; who is my neighbour; what my personality is; or whether there is a God.
In this connection, Gabriel Marcel makes a useful distinction between:
· A problem, in which the being of the questioner is not involved – as in science. Problems can, in principle, be solved, and once solved they disappear as problems, they go away; and
· A mystery, self-involving problems, which can be clarified and into which we can penetrate more and more deeply, but which cannot be solved once and for all and tend to constantly recur. For example, the question, do I have a body, or am I my body? Is it something I possess or something which I am? Insoluble, because it is partly self involving, it depends to some extent on me. Thus also the notion of ‘a person’. The same in respect of personal relationship with one another or with God. Thus for belief, or trust, for emotions or attitudinal stances like love or hope or anxiety or even pain. To treat them in a detached, objective manner is to miss the point. Philosophical reflection in respect of these has to be from within the experience itself, and from the standpoint of an actor, a participant in the drama of life, not a spectator.
We have problems – they are a species of ‘having’, but we are involved in mysteries, part of our being is itself in question, Who am I is the issue.
(B) Who are the Existentialists?
· The first thing to say is that it is, or was, a cultural movement, not just technical philosophy. They are as likely to write novels and plays as technical philosophy – especially the French, e.g. Marcel, Sartre, Camus. Even in philosophy it is nothing like a school, and by no means everyone who is called such would recognize him or herself as such or would like to be called such.
· It is most obviously a French phenomenon, in its heyday during and after the Second World War: thus
Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1987)
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961)
Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973 – somewhat earlier)
But with roots in
Karl Jaspers (1883-1969)
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)
· And deeper roots in the 19th Century thinkers
F. Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who fits the description of an ‘existentialist’ as good as almost anyway.
· Certain Russian thinkers like Nicolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), dependent on Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky have also been roped in,
as have such Spanish philosophers as Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1934) and Jose Ortega Y Gasset (1883-1955),
and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (born
So it is a rather broad net, a useful description but sometimes of only limited value. It evokes a certain style or family resemblance, sometimes not much more.
· In respect of Theism, Existentialism is an open philosophy. There is Theistic Existentialism: Jaspers, Marcel, and of course Kierkegaard. There is also Atheistic Existentialism: Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Camus, the non-theism of Heidegger. Belief in God is one of those self-involving problems, you see. You can construe your human situation either way. (Cf. Also Hans Kung, the end of his book, Does God Exist?: Can I trust the ground on which I stand?) These tend to focus on similar themes, and both take life quite seriously; but life for the theists is typically not quite so ambiguous or absurd.
As a serious movement in philosophy, it ended, probably, with the death of Merleau-Ponty in 1961, Sartre by this stage having moved on to a kind of Marxism. Much good philosophy was done in the course of it, however, and it has had lasting effects particularly in philosophical anthropology, but also in philosophy of religion and much theology (esp. John Macquarrie), and people like Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty have become part of the philosophical tradition on which people still draw. It has also been influential in psychotherapy of both the serious and popular varieties: R.D. Laing, Adrian van Kaam, Igor A. Caruso.
(C) Method in Existentialist Philosophy
This can be very personal and broadly literary. The more philosophically inclined this century often find a suitably reconstructed version of the Phenomenological Method to their liking, and have consequently been dubbed ‘Existential Phenomenologists”. Or they start out as phenomenologists and include existential themes and consequently get named such. The more prominent Existential Phenomenologists: the early Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty.
(D) Some Final Comments in Appreciation:
· As a way of doing philosophy, it is quite good in respect of personal existence and intimate inter-personal relations.
· It does not involved itself to any great degree in the social problematic, = the typical Marxist critique, which may help to explain Sartre’s late attempt to reconcile with Marxism. Apart from some ideas in Marcel and Heidegger in critique of the consumer society (already, in those days), and this late attempt by Sartre, it is not usually an attempt to change the world, more like a strategy for making ones way in it as an individual person or small group.
· Finally, with the exception of Merleau-Ponty, it tends to ignore the cosmos and our being a part of it, almost entirely.
Jean Paul Sartre: Existentialism and Humanism, Being and Nothingness
Albert Camus: The Plague, The Fall, The Outsider
Gabriel Marcel: Being and Having, The Mystery of Being
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex