Existentialism

existentialismIt is widely claimed, both by its supporters and detractors, that existentialism is an unsystematic philosophy. I recall one of my own advisors in graduate school disparaging the “moodiness” of existential thought as “adolescent” because she found it lacking in rigor. In it she saw something resembling a dark “perspective” or “attitude” ruled by emotions and feelings rather than a coherent, rational philosophy consisting of clearly articulated and integrated claims about the nature of reality. Walter Kaufman, on the other hand, praised and admired what he saw as the passionate unruliness of existentialism, characterizing it as a healthy and exciting revolt against traditional philosophizing. The “unsystematic” nature of existentialism, thus, might be thought of either as a flaw or as a virtue depending on one’s attitude toward “systems” in general.

British philosopher David E. Cooper is a supporter of both systems and of existentialism. In his book Existentialism he presents a reconstruction of the philosophy as both coherent and logical, rejecting what he calls the “silly” view that it is at best a version of psychology and at worst a joke. Instead, Cooper contends that existentialism in fact constitutes a “movement of thought that, as our century closes, is increasingly perceived as the distinctive direction of that century’s philosophizing.” (p. viii) [This second edition of the book was published in 1999.]

The reason why it is so common to characterize existentialism as something other than a coherent philosophy stems from a number of sources, according to Cooper. For one thing, those thinkers commonly labeled as “existentialists” disagree about quite a bit; including whether or not they are indeed existentialists! Most centrally, Cooper highlights the friction between the ideas of Heidegger and Sartre (in fact devoting an appendix at the end of the book to this topic) in order to show the real problems involved in trying to square the ideas of two thinkers who, by any account, must be included in a book about this subject. Secondly, since key figures such as Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus were novelists, there is a tendency to rely very heavily on their fiction, rather than their philosophical texts, in trying to reconstruct existentialist ideas. But fiction is very rarely intended to be systematic, and so this may be more of a distraction than an aid in ferreting out a coherent existentialist philosophy. There is also the problem that some thinkers – like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – are central to the development of the existentialist tradition, however they are more like precursors or influences than they are existentialists in the sense of Heidegger or Sartre. The overall problem, then, is that when we use the term “existentialism” to refer to thinkers, we lack clear criteria by which to categorize them, perhaps mistaking superficial differences between thinkers for deeper philosophical differences, conflating philosophical ideas with fictional narratives, and confusing influences on thought with the content of the thought itself.

Cooper’s project, then, is to clarify the meaning of “existentialism.” He does this by imagining an “ideal existentialist” who “embodies the best wisdom … to be gleaned from actual existentialist writers.” (p. 10)  By scrutinizing the ideas of a variety of thinkers associated with the tradition, Cooper focuses in on the common center of those ideas, funneling and solidifying them into a figure he calls the “Existentialist.” While the ideal Existentialist – like the ideal Christian, or Scientist, or American – may not exist as a flesh-and-blood person, this figure nonetheless embodies the core tenets of what Cooper claims to be a systematic existentialist philosophy.

The initiating issue that serves as the starting point of this philosophy, according to Cooper, is an engagement with the problem of human alienation and the explication of a strategy for its overcoming. In this regard, Cooper roots the existentialist tradition in the same issue that concerned Hegel and Marx, both of whom diagnosed human alienation as the result of historical conditions. However, unlike Marx, the Existentialist does not hold that alienation is a recent historical problem, but one that is “spiritual.” In this, the Existentialist agrees with Hegel, who also sees alienation as a step in the direction of the development of self-consciousness. But unlike Hegel, the Existentialist does not agree that the human mind is an extrusion of some greater, self alienated cosmic mind. It is the individual, human mind itself – not universal Geist – that experiences alienation, according to Cooper’s Existentialist.

This individualized conception of human thought is related to the Existentialist’s preoccupation with phenomenology. Since alienation grows out of our own uniquely human ways of thinking, its overcoming requires that we examine and mend those patterns of thought that have brought us to our alienated situation. Existential phenomenology, in attending to the unfolding of lived, mental experience, helps to construct a description of the structure of inner human consciousness. In this description, the Existentialist comes to reject the idea of the “self” as a substance. Humans are not “things” determined by the influences of cause and effect, but conscious, non-substantial processes that strive freely toward goals and aspirations of their own making. The “self” of the Existentialist is a freely choosing and ongoing project.  Additionally, the Existentialist also embraces the phenomenological concept of “intentionality,” which holds that all of our conscious experience is experience of something. We never just “think” in an empty vacuum. Rather we always think about something, and  thus there must always be an interconnectedness between the thinking “self” and the things that “self” is consciously oriented toward. Our understanding of ourselves, thus, must always be developed within in a context of engagement with other things and other consciousnesses. (p. 47) We are, as conscious beings, always already “thrown” into relationships with others.

9780806501956The recognition of our “thrownness” into a world with others is a fundamental part of existentialist philosophy, according to Cooper. Phenomenologically, we are “beings-in-the-world,” already connected to others by the ways in which consciousness itself operates. We are not mere spectators, but actors embedded within lived, concrete contexts and relationships. It is our engagement in these relationships that brings meaning to existence. Humans are not substances that “exist in splendid logical isolation from anything else.” (p. 75) No, humans create themselves by choosing to interact with the “things” that they consciously encounter and confront. This is how we build our lives, making ourselves into “writers, criminals, cowards or whatever.” (p. 76) In contrast to the Cartesian notion of the mind as an isolated, nonphysical substance sitting apart and separate from the rest of the physical world, the Existentialist describes human consciousness as something that does not exist at all without the world it inhabits. This particular point is one that Cooper thinks has been obscured by Sartre, who, in Existentialism is a Humanism, referred to the Cartesian Cogito as his starting point. This assertion inspired a hostile response from Heidegger, who in his Letter on Humanism, rejected Sartre’s “dualistic” position, which he claimed made a false distinction between the worlds of mind and matter. But, as Cooper rightly points out, in Being and Nothingness, where Sartre gives a much more detailed account of consciousness, it is clear that he does not differ so radically from Heidegger at all, but rather concurs in the characterization of consciousness as a “nothing” or a “clearing” within the very fabric of Being rather than as a substance existing separately from the rest of the world. Human consciousness is like the hole within a doughnut, which cannot exist apart from the dough itself, but which is also distinct from the dough as a kind of “lack” or clearing in the dough. Similarly, human consciousness is like a clearing within Being itself, and so is not a substance determined by the causal laws governing the physical universe itself. Consciousness is a “nothingness” sitting within the physical world, free to construct its own perspectives and interpretations on the world into which it has been thrown (or torn?). When regarded as we actually are phenomenologically, human beings are not mere objects, separate and aloof from the rest of Being. According to the Existentialist, human consciousnesses are more like clearings within Being. Within consciousness, thought unfolds freely, and thus it is always actively involved in choosing how to comport itself toward the world it inhabits.

This is logically related to the existentialist concepts of authenticity and inauthenticity according to Cooper. Because of our freedom to choose, we experience an unsettling sense of responsibility for the course that our lives take while being-in-the-world-with-others. This sense of responsibility may at times feel overwhelming, and so there is a recurrent tendency for humans to lapse into inauthentic ways of life. We become tempted to lie to ourselves, and to claim, falsely, that we are substances among other substances, subject to the same push and pull of external forces that determine the movements of mere physical things. By lying to ourselves in this way, we experience relief from what can often be experienced as a crushing sense of guilt. After all, if the course of my life is determined by forces outside of my control, then I cannot be blamed for my failures or shortcomings. Rather, blame may be placed on my economic condition, or my upbringing, or my genetics, or my psychological constitution. While all of these factors may be a part of the pre-given world that my consciousness has been thrown into, none of them necessarily determines what I am going to do with my life once I exist within the world. Even a poor person, for instance, has to choose how to live with or react to poverty. When living in a state of inauthenticity, a human being forgets this, instead falling prey to the delusion, for instance, that the world of poverty determines a specific way of life, rather than recognizing that it is the human actor who determines what to do when thrown into a life of poverty.

The inauthentic way of life is encouraged by our absorption into the “They”; the society of others who seek to use us as means to their own ends. This is part of the ambiguous nature of our relationship with others. On the one hand, we need others in order to situate ourselves, to react against, and to see ourselves reflected. It is in relationship with “them” that we discover our own power of choice by way of negotiating a place within the world. However, in this there is also a temptation to fall prey to “them,” forgetting of our own power of choice, allowing ourselves to become cogs in the social machine. For instance, it may be tempting for a person living in poverty to view himself or herself as a victim of economic circumstances, and thus fall prey to others who offer rescue while promoting some sort of economic or political agenda.  In abandoning one’s self to the interpretations and schemes of others, a human being can lose sight of their own powers of interpretation, and instead of authentically taking hold of life, act like a passive pawn in someone else’s game. When we think of ourselves this way, be become inauthentic.

Inauthenticity is a form of thinking that covers over the truth of existential freedom, and for this reason, the term is loaded with normative/ethical connotations. As Cooper points out, this is one of the issues that seems to divide Heidegger and Sartre. While Heidegger emphasizes authenticity and inauthenticity as states of Being, neither good nor bad, Sartre tends to cast inauthenticity (or bad faith) in moral terms as something that is unethical. Cooper suggests that there may be something a bit disingenuous about Heidegger’s insistence that a word like “inauthentic” is not intended to have any normative connotations. Consequently, in Cooper’s characterization of the ideal Existentialist, he highlights the ethical importance of striving toward authenticity in one’s self and in others as a part of the existential philosophy. Existentialism, thus, is non a form of “amoralism,” but contains an essentially ethical message: Our own freedom is dependent on recognizing the freedom of others. “Only if I regard and treat others – or better, regard them through  treating them – as loci of existential freedom will I receive back an image of myself as just such a locus.” (p. 187) The ethical message here is articulated as what sounds like a version of egoism insofar as the grounding of Cooper’s existentialist morality lies in the desire for the individual to be treated as free, and not in some sort of altruistic desire to make others free. In other words, it is only because I want to be recognized as free that I treat others as free. Indeed, this focus on individual liberation, according to Cooper, imbues the Existentialist with a degree of elitism, since in pursuing personal authenticity, the focus is on “private perfection” (p. 193) rather than the more “grand,” democratic project of perfecting the world for everyone. And yet, in the end, the outcome may be the same. If I do unto others as I wish them to do to me, it may not matter that my motivation is egoistic. Others will still benefit.

Nonetheless, Cooper does suggest in the closing paragraphs of his book that there may be a more “grand” kind of existentialism that can be found in the very practice of philosophy itself. He points out that while philosophy is in one sense elitist – being pursued by a small group of people who withdraw from the mainstream of society in order to devote their lives to reflection on the human condition –  as a discipline, it is nonetheless devoted to making contributions to culture as a whole. The collective lessons learned by those who have withdrawn from the “They” in order to become “authentic” in turn flow back to society, giving guidance to others in search of their own authenticity. Perhaps, then, this is the final step in the Existentialist’s overcoming of alienation. By first withdrawing from, but then returning to, the They we may find the closing of a circle that is part of the ongoing rhythm of existential thought. Alienation is overcome when, after first resisting the world around us, we come to understand that such resistance is dependent upon our antecedent thrownness into that very same world that we find ourselves bristling against. Our reintegration is accomplished by authentically embracing the totality of the existential struggles that are part and parcel of being-in-the-world-with-others.

My criticisms of Cooper’s book are few, and mostly related to his strategy for constructing the ideal type of Existentialist. While I find very little to complain about in terms of the final “system” of existentialism that Cooper ends up with – it pretty much encompasses what I always took to be the major doctrines of the philosophy – I do question some of the choices he makes along the way. For instance, early on in the book Cooper insistently excludes Albert Camus from his consideration of existentialist thinkers. His reason for this exclusion is that “unlike the rest of our writers, it is not at all his aim to reduce or overcome a sense of alienation or separateness from the world.” (p. 9) But this makes it appear as if Cooper has already settled on a definition of “existentialism,” and rather than considering all of the evidence at hand, he has decided to leave out thinkers, like Camus, who don’t fit his a priori conceptions. While I personally question whether it is true that Camus really is unconcerned with the alleviation of human alienation (his essay The Myth of Sisyphus is focused precisely on this topic), could it nevertheless be the case that some existentialists while not necessarily offering a solution to alienation could, in a more general sense, simply be concerned with the issue of human alienation?  If Cooper’s definition was broadened in this way, then he could include the insights of Camus, a thinker who, like Heidegger, seems to me centrally important to an understanding of existentialism. The exclusion of Camus is especially strange as later on in the book Cooper, in various places, draws on the ideas of Iris Murdoch, a thinker only peripherally connected to the tradition, in order to shape his definition. Including Murdoch, but excluding Camus, is a very odd decision indeed.

20120617-154833A less serious criticism has to do with Cooper’s repeated denigration of certain subcultures – like beatniks, hippies, and punks – as misrepresentations, or hollow examples of, the lessons of existential philosophy. Cooper never gives much of a justification for these repeated attacks, which I presume are rooted in his assumption that the members of these groups are themselves shallow and unphilosophical. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization. I suspect that Cooper has not really studied these subcultures in depth, and so his comments in this regard are probably best just to throw away. However as someone who still has a bit of the punk rocker in him, I personally found such repeated insults annoying.

As a whole, I really admire the work that Cooper has put into Existentialism. I suppose there are those, like Walter Kaufman, who would object to the entire project of trying to delineate a systematic philosophy of existentialism. I don’t share such an objection, however. The philosophy articulated in this book is clear, sensible and – even if I don’t agree with all of its tenets – very attractive in its general contours.

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6 thoughts on “Existentialism

    • Yes, in a very general sense, I do think that is what being an authentic person is. What is complicated, however, is the question of what constitutes honesty, lying or self-deception.

      The sort of honesty that existentialists are concerned with is that which is focused on recognizing and embracing the type of being that you are. Heidegger uses the term “Dasein” to designate this type of being, which (to simplify things) is one that is aware of its finitude and open to the pursuit of future oriented projects.

      If we use that as a starting point, then lying to one’s self, or deceiving one’s self (and thus being inauthentic) could be understood as rooted in the denial of finitude and the denial of one’s future orientation.

      Personally, I think that there are many people who do deny their finitude, not necessarily in the sense of thinking that they will never die, but in the sense that they live their lives as if they will always have more time to do the things that they claim are really important to them in life. These sorts of people are constantly putting things off – until there is no time left and disappointment sets in.

      The denial of one’s future orientation is another form of inauthenticity that, at least to me, seems to describe the situation of many people. Some people live life in a rut, feeling like they are “going nowhere,” and never pursuing goals or projects that they claim to passionately embrace. But since (at least according to existentialists) living in a rut is itself a kind of choice, in effect such people are, despite themselves, pushing into the future in a rut-like way, inadvertently building a life project that they are not willing to embrace.

      The kind of honesty that I see existentialism promoting is not necessarily the sort of honesty that comes from asserting and believing true statements, but the sort of lived honesty that comes from embodying one’s values in action and in one’s life projects.

      What are your thoughts on the matter? Is this how you understand authenticity?

      • I find your post very interesting as not lying to myself is of fundamental importance in my life for me.

        Do you think that when someone is lying to himself, he knows that he is lying to himself?

      • If you articulate it that way, I think a paradox might result. In order to lie to yourself, you would have to know that you are lying. But if you know that you are lying to yourself, then you can’t be deceived by the lie.

        In existentialism, I think the way out of this paradox is found in the temporal aspect of human consciousness. A person might lie to one’s self in the sense that the “self” is not a complete, whole “thing,” but an unfolding process that has a past, a present and a future. Since the self is divided into these aspects, perhaps it would be better to say that from the perspective of the present, we sometimes distort the truth of our past states of being, or of our future possibilities. So, one might be said to lie to one’s self in the sense that one part of the self does not clearly or accurately represent another part of the self.

        Does a person doing this *know* what he or she is doing? I’m not sure if I would call it “knowledge,” but I think there is some level of awareness or suspicion on the part of the “self” when descending into inauthenticity. Normally, existentialists characterize this awareness in terms of moods – like angst or despair – rather than in terms of knowledge. These moods attune us to something in ourselves that is out of joint.

        What do you think of this way of putting things?

    • In his book on existentialism, Cooper suggests that the goal of existential philosophy is the overcoming of alienation. In this sense, I suppose, you could say that existentialists work toward the integration of the self.

      A divided self, then, might be indicative of inauthenticity while an undivided, integrated self might be indicative of authenticity.

      If this is right, then perhaps existential philosophy could be thought of as reiterating what was inscribed at Delphi: “Know Thyself.” And in order to work toward knowing yourself, there must be some sense in which a part of you does not yet know all of you.

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