An essence for existentialism

Thu 11 Dec 2008 02:25 PM

[This post is part of a series; see pt 1.]

Here is one concise way of characterizing existentialism:

Existentialists believe that human existence is characterized by a tension between being and becoming. The former is a matter of specific moments, facts, and actions. The latter is a matter of the personality that unifies the actions.
Sartre calls these two aspects facticity and trascendence; failing to reconcile them is bad faith. Kierkegaard calls them temporality and eternity; failing to reconcile them is despair.

With this definition in hand, we can sort the history of philosophy in a sensible way. Sartre, the paradigmatic existentialist, counts as one. So do most of the usual suspects: Kierkegaard, Marcel, Buber, Tillich, Frankl, and so on. The only fellow traveller left out in the cold is Nietzsche, who does not count as an existentialist by this definition.

The definition also excludes Hemingway, Emerson, and all the moody characters who ought to be excluded.

We can make sense of saying that early Heidegger (in Being&Time) is existentialist, but that later Heidegger is not. Similarly, that Sartre's later marxist writings are no longer existentialist. (We could not even sensibly say those things if existentialism was ostensively defined by pointing to the usual subjects or if the definition was so broad as to include anyone mopey.)

Characterizing existentialism in this way also has several nice conceptual consequences. Here are a few:

1. It raises the question of freedom in an interesting way. While you are still alive, there are further actions that you will perform. It is possible that, considered as actions of the same person, your further actions will change the meaning of past actions. Whether past actions were cowardly (to take a common example) is not yet a settled thing. In this sense, you are free. This is not the tired metaphysical question of libertarian free will.

2. It leads us to ask whether and how the tension between the two aspects of ones existence can be reconciled. For Sartre, 'authenticity' can be defined as resolving the tension; it does not seem as if resolution is possible, so inauthenticity is inevitable. For de Beauvoir, authenticity requires embracing what the tension (which she calls ambiguity); the tension cannot be resolved, but recognizing this is a precondition for authenticity. For Kierkegaard, the tension can be resolved by a leap of faith. For Marcel, it can be resolved by commitment to a human community.

3. It leads us to ask whether this description of human existence applies to all homo sapiens. For Sartre, the answer is yes. Everyone is necessarily an individual subject. As such, there is a kind of violence in interpersonal relations: As a subject, you make an object out of others, and they make an object out of you. For Marcel the answer is no. An ego can fail to be a person by not relating to others in mutually-recognizing trust. For Heidegger, no. One can fail to be an authentic individual by just being an anonymous anybody. This Heideggerian sense of inathenticity is not about mismanaging the tension between the two aspects of human existence, but rather about failing to be a real human self at all.

Finally, this definition provides a nice pedagogical lens for focusing the material. One could spend a whole semester on Being&Nothingness, but an existentialism course can only include selections. A definition of existentialism provides a way of picking parts that will connect to other readings and helps in cutting out other things.

To sum up: I have long had this definition of existentialism that works historically, conceptually, and pedagogically. So it was somewhat disconcerting to recognize another adequate definition.

Continuing the existentialist serial, I'll leave the other definition for another post: Can any definition save little Friedrich from the abyss? Find out in the next exciting episode!


from: Greg

Fri 12 Dec 2008 08:44 AM

An ignoramus's question:

Why doesn't 'little Friedrich' fit this characterization?

from: Administrator (P.D. Magnus)

Fri 12 Dec 2008 04:24 PM

The answer is simple: This conception of human existence does not appear in Nietzsche's writings.

from: Greg

Fri 19 Dec 2008 01:51 PM

Is that because N. thinks there is only the becoming aspect of human existence, and the being side is a myth or at least a post hoc rationalization at best?