Another essence for existentialism  
[This post is part of a series; see pt 1. and pt. 2.]

In the previous installment, I discussed my favorite way of characterizing existentialism: Existentialists believe that human beings are importantly made up of both being (facticity, temporality) and becoming (transcendence, eternity), and understanding human existence requires understanding the tension between these two aspects.

The only real downside of this, as a defining criterion of existentialism, is that it leaves out Nietzsche. It is not really so much that Nietzsche thinks of humans as just being or as just becoming. Rather, he refuses to offer a fundamental characterization of human existence at all. For a perspectivist like Nietzsche, an ontological description of humans is just one story or way of talking about things.

Of course, Nietzsche was a great influence on 20th-century existentialists. So I felt justified in including some Nietzsche on the syllabus for by existentialism course, even though I didn't think he was an existentialist.

While teaching the course, however, I saw a way to think of 'existentialism' so that Nietzsche could come to the party (rather than merely standing on the front stoop and watching the festivities through the window.) Consider:
Existentialists believe that there is no value or moral significance prior to the appearance of valuing creatures like human beings. Humans invent rather than discover value.
This describes Sartre, de Beauvoir, Marcel, and many of the usual suspects. The reject the spirit of seriousness, the view that there are preexisting values that we are morally obligated to recognize.

The fact that values are invented doesn't make them unreal. The view is not nihilism or absurdism.

This characterization excludes writers like Hemingway (an absurdist, I think) and Emerson (a quirky kind of serious man).

It also raises some interesting conceptual issues. We can ask about the minimal conditions for being valuing creature. Can homo sapiens fail to be sources of value? What about dogs, emus, or dolphins?

We can ask whether you are the only source of values for yourself or whether you should recognize the values projected by other people, too. Sartre and de Beauvoir disagree on this: He says that we are each inevitably forlorn, but she insists that moral solipsism is an ethical shortcoming.

Yet, this characterization also suffers a categorical failure: Kierkegaard!

Kierkegaard's insistence that "truth is subjectivity" only means that the divine moral scene is not a systematic, rational thing. God might want us to do things like sacrifice our first born. If it was right for Abraham to kill Isaac, it wasn't just because Abraham freely structured the situation thus.

So now I have two characterizations of existentialism, each of which excludes one of the movement's 19th-century progenitors. Do you want the syphilitic German or the hunchbacked Dane? One might insist that both criteria are necessary conditions for being an existentialist, so that neither of them are included. One might chisholm the definition further to write the canon of existentialism in platonic ink, but I don't really see the point. I don't see anything wrong with having two definitions of existentialism, provided that they both reward reflection and disagree about categorizing only boundary cases.

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2008 in review 
Here's the bullet-point summary of my blogging in 2008. In accord with tradition, I've taken the first sentence from the first post of every month; cf. 2006 and 2007.

I: Three items related to papers and publication...

II: Bridget and Janet both made note of Blogroll Amnesty Day.

III: Last week I received the student comment forms from my teaching last term.

IV: I gave my Saturday over to the UAlbany Grad Student Philosophy Conference, and I am glad I did.

V: Yesterday was the last day of class, and so it was time for the usual debriefing.

VI: I've posted a new draft of my paper on epistemic significance and natural curiousity.

VII: Not long ago, I wrote a short paper on musical performance.

VIII: At dinner several weeks ago, I mentioned that the word 'broad' to describe a woman originally referred to pregnant cows.

IX: I was recently advising undergraduates as they registered for classes.

X: There's been some blog reaction to my fibs in Wikipedia paper.

XI: [n/a]

XII: 'Existentialism' has been a bit of vexed jargon in the 20th century.

Blogging has been lighter this year, so much so that there were no posts in November whatsoever. Content, such as it is, is a mix of philosophical research (4 months), teaching (4 months), and random other stuff. Only one month begins with a post discussing the blog itself. The blog has been less self-absorbed, perhaps only because there has been less of itself for it be be absorbed in.

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An essence for existentialism 
[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!

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See Eff Pee 
Last year's 1st annual Albany grad student conference conference was a great success, and it turns out that the '1st annual' was not mere bluster. The 2nd annual grad conference will focus on political philosophy. Thomas Pogge will be the keynote.

If you are a grad student who lives in the region, and you are working in some area of political philosophy, consider participating. See the official page for details. Submissions are due January 23; the conference itself is March 28.

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Hunting the essence of existentialism 
'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.

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