By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

37. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 803-828

Existence: Introduction; The Definition of Existence (Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche); Moments of Existence (Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre) 

Søren Kierkegaard: The Individual and the Crowd

It's not much of a step from Dostoevsky's underground man to the existentialists. As the introduction notes, "many of the themes of the preceding section [Self] will recur: an opposition of individual and society; an inner division of particularity and universality; temporal emergence; the struggle for authenticity; and a troubled assertion of freedom." But existentialism "has a psychological subtlety and a sense of urgency that are its own. The distinctive existentially vocabulary -- turning on such categories as being, absurdity, choice, dread, despair, commitment -- is like a situational survey or map courageously drawn at a moment of supreme crisis." 

In The Point of View for My Work as an Author (1859), Kierkegaard stresses the subjectivity that becomes central to existentialism, though from the point of view of a Christian. Taking as his text St. Paul's assertion, "only one attains the goal," he proclaims that truth is a matter of individual perception, not that of the group to which one belongs: "a 'crowd' is the untruth ... by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible, or at least weakens his sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction." Even if the "crowd" is unanimous in its choice, the will to act is an individual one: "For 'crowd' is an abstraction and has no hands:  but each individual has ordinarily two hands." It is that individual's choice to use those hands that is significant, for the individual may choose to follow the crowd or not to follow it. 

Søren Kierkegaard: Concrete Existence and Abstract System 

In Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1844), Kierkegaard emphasizes process rather than dogma, citing Lessing's assertion that if God offered him a choice between the truth and the pursuit of truth, he would choose the pursuit. In fact, Kierkegaard says, we are not presented with the choice at all. There are many who proclaim that they have a "System" that is the truth, but they're lying: they assert "that the System is almost finished, or at least under construction, and will be finished by next Sunday." He admits, "I shall be as willing as the next man to fall down in worship before the System, if only I can manage to set eyes upon it." But despite promises of its imminent completion, no one has produced it yet. 

"System and finality are pretty much one and the same, so much so that if the system is not finished, there is no system." And "a fragment of a system is nonsense.... A persistent striving to realize a system is on the other hand still a striving; and a striving, aye, a persistent striving, is precisely what Lessing talks about." Instead of systems, we get false advertising, like that of the man who advertised that he had lost a cotton umbrella because if he had told the truth, that it was silk, the person who found it would be more likely to keep it rather than return it. 
So also thinks, in all probability, the systematist: "If on the title-page and in the announcements I call my production a persistent striving for the truth, alas! who will buy it or admire me? But if i call it the System, the Absolute System, everyone will surely want to buy the System."
The "existing individual [is] a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal situated in existence." But because abstract thought deals with eternal verities, it fails to take into account the plight of the human being who stands at the intersection of time and eternity: "the difficulty inherent in existence constitutes the interest of the existing individual, who is infinitely interested in existing." So "an abstract thinker is a duplex being: a fantastic creature who moves in the pure being of abstract thought, and on the other hand, a sometimes pitiful professorial figure which the former deposits, about as when one sets down a walking stick." 

The problem arises when one tries to think of "the eternal as in process of becoming." It's compounded by the fact that "the thinker himself is in process of becoming. It is easier to indulge in abstract thought than it is to exist." The Greeks regarded "a thinker [as] an existing individual stimulated by his reflection to a passionate enthusiasm." And the early Christians regarded the thinker as "a believer who strove enthusiastically to understand himself in the existence of faith. If anything of this sort held true of the thinkers of our own age, the enterprise of pure thought would have led to one suicide after another. For suicide is the only tolerable existential consequence of pure thought." Thus Kierkegaard anticipates by about a century Camus's famous assertion that the only real philosophical question is that of suicide. "Nowadays a thinker is a curious creature who during certain hours of the day exhibits a very remarkable ingenuity, but has otherwise nothing in common with a human being."

Friedrich Nietzsche: The Free Thinker and the Consensus

In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche also asserts that truth is a matter of individual and subjective judgment: "One must get rid of the bad taste of wishing to agree with many others" and especially not be a slave "of democratic taste and its 'modern ideas,'" especially the "inclination to see the cause for all human misery and failure in the structure of society as it has been up to now" and the desire for "the universal green pasture-happiness of the herd: security, lack of danger, comfort and alleviation of life for everyone." He sneers at "equal rights" and "compassion for all that suffers," and rejects the idea that suffering is "something that must be abolished." Suffering is what toughens us up, and leads to "the advancement of the species." 

Friedrich Nietzsche: Subjective Will and Objective Truth

In another excerpt from Beyond Good and Evil and one from The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche rejects objectivity: "The objective man is indeed a mirror; above all he is something that wishes to be recognized and understood; he is accustomed to subordination, devoid of any pleasure other than that afforded by cognition, by 'mirroring.'" As a consequence, he knows nothing about himself: "Whatever 'person' is left in him seems accidental to him, often arbitrary, even more often disturbing." In the end, "he places himself at too remote a point to side with either good or evil." Nietzsche scathingly runs through the insipid and ineffectual character of the "objective man," and concludes, wickedly, "he is usually a man without substance or content, a 'self-less' man. Hence, not a man for women either (parenthetically remarked)." 

Moving less satirically and more pointedly into the realm of metaphysics, Nietzsche takes aim at the seekers of truth, whose claim to objectivity is an attempt to conceal their biases, conscious or unconscious: "the largest part of conscious thinking must be consider an instinctual activity, even in the case of philosophical thinking." The philosopher's own instincts guide and color his conclusions: "Even behind logic and its apparent sovereignty of development stand value judgments, or, to speak more plainly, physiological demands for preserving a certain type of life." 

Beneath the supposedly rational judgment of every philosopher lies "a pre-conceived dogma, a notion, an 'institution,' or mostly a heart's desire, made abstract and refined, ... defended by them with arguments sought after the fact." He mocks "The spectacle of old Kant's Tartuffery, as stiff as it is respectable, luring us onto the dialectical crooked paths which lead (or better, mislead) to his 'categorical imperative.'" Nietzsche asserts that "every great philosophy up to now has been ... the personal confession of its originator, a type of involuntary and unaware memoirs.... Each individual desire wants badly to represent itself as the final aim of existence and as rightful master of all the others." 

Over against the "man of theory, ... working in the service of science," the traditional ideal  embodied by Socrates, Nietzsche sets the man of action. He reminds us that the "Alexandrian culture" that makes the philosopher and the scientist the paragon "requires a slave class for its continued existence, but in its optimism it denies the necessity for such a class." And Kant (now back in Nietzsche's good graces) and Schopenhauer have demonstrated that the Enlightenment "optimism [that] treated the universe as knowable, in the presumption of eternal truths, and space, time, and causality as absolute and universally valid laws ... serve only to raise appearance ... to the status of true reality, thereby rendering impossible a genuine understanding of that reality." The challenges to the optimists and the objective thinkers have been shaken to the core. "The man of theory, having begun to dread the consequences of his views, no longer dares commit himself freely to the icy flood of existence but runs nervously up and down the bank."

Albert Camus: The Fact of Absurdity 

Albert Camus in 1957
Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) familiarized us with the "absurd," that moment of recognition that meaning does not necessarily inhere in our daily activities. When we respond to "the impulse of consciousness," and question why we do what we do, "At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery." Camus concludes that this is for the good: "For everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.... Mere 'anxiety,' as Heidegger says, is at the source of everything." 

We grow up thinking of the future as a time when things will begin to take shape for us, and we will understand what we have been preparing for. "Yet a day comes when a man notices or says that he is thirty  Thus he asserts his youth. But simultaneously he situates himself in time." Consciousness reveals to him that "after all, it's a matter of dying." And he recognize that while "he was longing for tomorrow, ... everything in him ought to reject it." He has experienced the absurd. 

Or we realize that the world is alien to us. "At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very moment lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them.... that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd." The absurd is also found in those moments when we confront ourselves in a mirror or a photograph and find ourselves alien. And when we contemplate our own mortality, and the fact that "everyone lives as if no one 'knew'" that they were going to die. "This is because in reality there is no experience of death. Properly speaking, nothing has been experienced by what has been lived and made conscious." 

The "giddy whirling" that the mind experiences in contemplating logical paradoxes leads us to the truism: "All thought is anthropomorphic." When we recognize that the world cannot be reduced to human terms, we experience the absurd. "If man realized that the universe like him can love and suffer, he would be reconciled." But of course it doesn't. And if we try to assert that we are one with the universe, "we fall into the ridiculous contradiction of a mind that asserts total unity and proves by its very assertion its own difference and the diversity it claimed to resolve."
It is essential to consider as a constant point of reference in this essay the regular hiatus between what we fancy we know and what we really know, practical assent and simulated ignorance which allows us to live with ideas which, if we truly put them to the test, ought to upset our whole life.
For the only thing we can know is our existence and our sensory contact with the world. "There ends my knowledge, and the rest is construction.... Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled." Theory can present us possible models of the world and the laws that govern it, but not certitude: 
But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know.... So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art.... I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world.
"Hence the intelligence, too, tells me in its way that this world is absurd," though in fact what is absurd is not the world but our attempts to apprehend it: "the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart." The absurd is the only link between man and the world. "It binds them one to the other as only hatred can weld two creatures together." 

Jean-Paul Sartre: Existence Precedes Essence 

Jean-Paul Sartre, c. 1950
In Existentialism and Humanism (1946) Sartre sets out to explain that central tenet of existentialism, "existence precedes essence." He starts with a paper-knife (something that people used to use before books came with their pages trimmed). A craftsman has the specs for the paper-knife and he knows what it's to be used for. Its essence precedes its existence. And then there's God, who creates man the same way that the artisan creates the paper knife: following a pattern and knowing what man is to be used for. "Thus each individual man is the realization of a certain conception which dwells in the divine understanding." 

The Enlightenment eliminated God from the process, while still retaining the idea of natural law, of man as filling a certain function in the universe. "Man possesses a human nature; that 'human nature,' which is the conception of human being, is found in every man, which means that each man is a particular example of a universal conception." Again, man's essence precedes his existence. 

But existentialism, at least the kind espoused by Sartre, rejects the existence of God. And in this view of man, he exists without any prior conception of what his function in nature, he "surges up in the world -- and defines himself afterwards.
Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself already existing -- as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.

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