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.

Wed 31 Dec 2008 02:48 PM


from: Archer

Kierkegaard was THE founder of existentialism; any introductory course on existentialism which exludes Kierkegaard is just retarded.

Nietzsche was not that important in the long run; his God is dead is ok, but Sartre covers that importantly. But Kierkegaard; without him, Heidegger would just be a bum.

Mon 05 Jan 2009 08:24 PM

from: Administrator (P.D. Magnus)

Kierkegaard was only billed as an "existentialist" in retrospect. He anticipated it, perhaps, but he certainly didn't found it.

Regardless of the historical connections, reading Kierkegaard does not necessarily help in understanding Sartre or Heidegger. An intro course can do perfectly well leaving him out.

Mon 05 Jan 2009 09:17 PM

from: Archer

Existentialist or "philosopher who anticipated existentialism" or whatever you want to call Kierkegaard, he was the one who started the ball rolling into what is now called existentialism. Existentialism is all about studying Kierkegaard. If you want to study Sartre or Heidegger, take a phenomenology course.

Wed 07 Jan 2009 05:30 AM

from: Administrator (P.D. Magnus)

As for who belongs in an existentialism course: Sartre coined the word as a self-description, and so gets to be in the circle. He also did phenomenology, but that's fine. There are parts of Being&Nothingness where both are clearly in play, but there are other works of his that really only belong in one course. My colleague Ron teaches Transcendence of the Ego in his phenomenology course, I teach No Exit in existentialism, and it wouldn't make sense to swap the reading lists.

My challenge to you is this: What about Kierkegaard, other than your stipulation, makes him an existentialist? To put the matter differently, what is existentialism such that Kierkegaard is at the center of it?

Wed 07 Jan 2009 08:14 AM

from: Archer

I'm pretty sure we all agree with Sartre's statement, existence precedes essence, is one of the defining existentialist credos. I give credit to Sartre for inventing a three word phrase, as well other phrases, to help stereotype existentialism. Nevertheless, the meaning of the phrase comes back to Kierkegaard again. The Kierkegaardian self has "the task of becoming itself", in other words, precisely to gain an essence for itself (to become itself).

There are several obstacles to become a true self (to gain an essence in Sartre's phrase), despair, anxiety, choice, boredom, freedom, death, etc. In Kierkegaard's works he explains each obstacle in full detail; anxiety is the dizziness of freedom is explained in Concept of Anxiety, despair of failing to exist is explained in Sickness unto Death, boredom is described in Crop Rotation of Either/Or and so on and so forth

All these are quintessential existentialist teachings, except dressed differently thanks to Sartre and Heidegger (Dasein and the "they" is Kierkegaard's crowd; bad faith is Kierkegaard's despair of wanting to be oneself, etc.) Now Kierkegaard founded all these things, Sartre and Heidegger may have fleshed some parts out (using help from Nietzsche, Buber, Jaspers and Marcel), but the foundation of both philosophers is undoubtedly Kierkegaard.

In my intro course on existentialism, Kierkegaard starts first and we'll discuss three or four topics like boredom, death, despair, anxiety and becoming a self, for example; Sartre and Heidegger follow to help elucidate Kierkegaard in 20th century garb (bad faith, anguish, flight, being-towards-death) and finally Kafka and Camus to help students with the applied stories.

Wed 07 Jan 2009 05:04 PM

from: Administrator (P.D. Magnus)

I disagree that Kierkegaard anticipated everything interesting in Sartrean existentialism. It seems to me that there is at least this important difference...

For Kierkegaard: The standpoint of rationalist ethics is coherent, but ultimately insufficient. At a deeper level, reality (especially divine reality) is absurd. One makes the leap of faith by embracing absurdity.

For Sartre: Traditional rationalist ethics is incoherent, a variety of bad faith. If its serious premise (that genuine value must be prior to human action) were true, then life really would be absurd. This premise is false, so reality is not absurd.

Sometimes Sartre and de Beauvoir take this rejection of absurdity to be fundamental to existentialism, and it isn't in Kierkegaard. I think this is a result of the fact that Kierkegaard is an existentialist my first sense (human existence is being plus becoming) but not in my second sense (all value must be invented).

Tue 13 Jan 2009 10:15 AM

from: Archer

I'm not saying Kierkegaard anticipated everything Sartre thought, but only the important existential parts of his philosophy, not the garbage parts.

You have badly misrepresented the leap of faith here. The leap of faith does not tell you to embrace absurdity or to do stupid absurd things or to believe absurdity. It's there to provide a corrective against rational Christianity. You cannot rationalize Abraham's actions (as a tragic hero, for example) because really, you can't. The man was about to commit murder for no good reason except for his possibly mistaken belief in God.

"The story of Abraham contains therefore a teleological suspension of the ethical. As the individual he became higher than the universal. This is the paradox which does not permit of mediation. It is just as inexplicable how he got into it as it is inexplicable how he remained in it. If such is not the position of Abraham, then he is not even a tragic hero but a murderer. To want to continue to call him the father of faith, to talk of this to people who do not concern themselves with anything but words, is thoughtless."

No rational ethics would allow a TSE, so the people who are saying Abraham's story is completely in line with rational ethics would be "people who do not concern themselves with anything but words" But that doesn't mean you ought to embrace absurdity if you do concern yourself with anything else but words!

Kierkegaard does anticipate the idea that people invent their own values, but SK ultimately rejected that in its current form. For if you were to invent your own values so that it becomes your "truth", then how would distinguish truth from madness?

"the objective way deems itself to have a security which the subjective way does not have (and, of course, existence and existing cannot be thought in combination with objective security); it thinks to escape a danger which threatens the subjective way and this danger is at its maximum: madness. In a merely subjective determination of the truth, madness and truth become in the last analysis indistinguishable" Was Abraham mad?

For Kierkegaard, you choose the values that are truth for you (that's his "truth is subjectivity"), but you still have to measure it against objectivity, otherwise how can you tell truth from madness? So I concede that Sartreís so-called "brilliant" idea is that you invent your own values, but thatís just an illogical extension of Kierkegaardís truth is subjectivity credo: Kierkegaard is intelligent enough not to want to go that far; he differs from philosophy prior, because unlike Aristotle, there are no pre-designed sets of values for man (e.g happiness/contemplation) but those values are still there, and you must choose the values and appropriate them subjectively in your life. Sartre's version goes too far in the sense that, you can't distinguish a "value" from madness; his version is irrationalism and subjectivism, not existentialism.

(Unless you want existentialism to include irrationalism and subjectivism)

Tue 13 Jan 2009 05:23 PM