Hunting the essence of existentialism

Mon 08 Dec 2008 09:51 AM

'Existentialism' has been a bit of vexed jargon in the 20th century. Teaching existentialism this term, I put some thought into the matter. I have started several times to blog about it (eg) but often my ruminations have threatened to overrun the borders of any reasonable blog post.

It is possible to use the term "existentialism" merely as a historical category, to refer to the rogues' gallery of moody philosophers in black turtlenecks who are typically included in anthologies of existentialist writing. Yet this would entirely ignore the reasons why these anthologies were collected in the first place. Although a new collection might include Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and who all else just because the previous collection did, the reading lists were not handed down from heaven on stone tablets. In Existential America-- my bedtime reading earlier this term-- George Cotkin does a nice job of documenting how the canon was formed. It is not merely an accidental grouping of some continental thinkers.

It is also possible to be a nihilist about "existentialism" and suppose that the term means nothing. Yet I would be pulling a bait and switch on students if I my "existentialism" course was mostly about Rawlsian political liberalism, to take an arbitrary non-existentialist topic. So I conclude that term cannot be entirely empty. And even if it were empty in its usual use, one might wonder whether there is any interesting thread running through the thought of the various so-called existentialists.

Steven Crowell, in his Stanford Encyclopedia entry, offers one such thread:

On the existential view, to understand what a human being is it is not enough to know all the truths that natural science... could tell us. ... Nor will it suffice to adopt the point of view of practice and add categories drawn from moral theory: neither scientific nor moral inquiry can fully capture what it is that makes me myself, my "ownmost" self. Without denying the validity of scientific categories (governed by the norm of truth) or moral categories (governed by norms of the good and the right), "existentialism" may be defined as the philosophical theory which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence.
This seems partly right to me, but too broad. Thoreau and Emerson thought that human existence was not exhausted by the analysis that science or ethics could give of it, and both were concerned with authenticity. Yet there are important differences between the transcendentalists' authenticity and the existentialists'.

So what's existentialism? For years, I've had an answer. But now I think there is an alternate answer that is just as good. It's uncomfortable, because the two answers underwrite different judgments about who is or isn't an existentialist.

I'll say more in another post.


from: Matt Brown

Mon 08 Dec 2008 01:43 PM

Oh, man! That's a heck of a cliffhanger.