The Nihilist’s Notebook is a collection of essays, stories and comics that I published in 1996. It is currently out of print, and so I have been asked if I would scan and post it online. I am going to try and do so in the near future, but in the meantime here is a comic to whet your appetites:
The Existential Files is a fun and lively podcast hosted by doctors Louie Savva and Matthew Smith, two psychologists from the UK who conduct interviews and discuss issues ranging from positive psychology to the existence of God.
The podcasts can be found on iTunes, Sticher, Youtube, Cast Crunch or on The Existential Files website.
For a dose of refreshing despair and futility, you should also check out Louie Savva’s blog, Everything is Pointless.
Mathew Smith’s blog also features lots of interesting tidbits.
I’m a big fan of Chuck Palahniuk’s books. When I read his work, I feel as if I am being spoken to by someone from my own generation and background, someone who shares my view of the world and who has struggled with some of the same existential issues that still trouble me to this day. Fight Club, in particular, is a book in which I see myself mirrored. The nameless main character’s self-alienation, and his absurd struggle to come to terms with the contradictory impulses welling up within him are so accurately and honestly described that I feel spiritually naked in the book’s presence. Fight Club is a book that leaves almost nothing hidden, and the movie version conceals even less.
This is not to say that all of Palahniuk’s books are equally successful. Sometimes, as in Haunted, his storytelling feels haphazard to me, as if constructed out of bits and pieces that don’t fit organically and that are strung together with too little consideration for logical or thematic consistency. In the case of Haunted, the whole narrative seems like a pretense to collect together a series of short stories, uneven in quality (though the story “Guts” is brilliant!), that would otherwise have had no home. This is an approach that works better in Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories, but only because that book has no pretense toward being anything other than a collection of disparate tales. In this way it is more honest than Haunted.
And now there is Fight Club 2. Assembled out of a series of comics (Fight Club 2: #1- #10), this graphic novel reintroduces the characters from the original story, continuing the saga of the narrator’s struggle with his inner alter-ego, Tyler Durden. While I was hopeful and eager once again to find personal resonance with these characters, in Fight Club 2, there is a jagged, pieced together structure to the storytelling, reminiscent of Haunted, which unfortunately makes the work confusing and just too jumbled and chaotic for my tastes. Add to this Palahniuk’s insertion of himself into the narrative – as a commentator on the cultural mythos of Fight Club – and what results is something so self-consciously postmodern and filled with “in” jokes that it fails to succeed as a stand-alone work of literature. It is, as the UPC code on the back cover indicates, more of a “media tie-in” than an original and serious work of fiction.
In Fight Club 2, the nameless narrator from the first book now has a name: Sebastian. Following his original mental breakdown, Sebastian is now on antipsychotic medication and married to Marla Singer with whom he has had a son. Despite (or because of) his newfound “tranquility,” Sebastian remains self-alienated, angst-ridden and unhappy. His marriage is falling apart, his son is starting to exhibit some of the same anti-social tendencies as his father, and he feels as if he has sacrificed greatness for conformity and domesticity.
One of the clever twists in this story is Marla’s sexual dissatisfaction with Sebastian, which inspires her to replace his anti-psychotic medication with aspirin so that the repressed passion of Tyler Durden can once again make its appearance in the bedroom. The problem is that once unlocked, this passion cannot be safely tucked away again, and so the rest of the story chronicles the chaos and destruction that is unleashed as Tyler Durden takes over Sebastian’s personality. In a side story, Marla imagines herself to be part of some sort of military mission (searching, I think, for Sebastian and/or their son), conducted along with members of a Progeria Syndrome support group. This confusing thread seems intended to demonstrate, as one of the commentators within the story suggests, that Tyler Durden “is some sort of infectious mental virus,” (p. 188) passed from Sebastian to his son and to Marla. At this point in the novel, I started to lose track of the logic of the narrative.
It seems that Palahniuk also lost track, since increasingly as the book comes to an end, he inserts himself into the story, again and again, along with a group of wine drinking women, interrupting the narrative to discuss just what it is that is going on. They debate the direction the story should go, and Palahniuk confronts a mob of fans – passages from the original Fight Club tattooed on their bodies – who are upset with his handling of this sequel. Incongruously, the final chapter of Fight Club 2 – titled Fight Club Ending Redux: The End of the Original Novel, Revisited – departs from everything else that has so far transpired and instead retells the conclusion of the first novel, now depicted in comic book form.
I appreciate that in Fight Club 2 Palahniuk is reflecting on how odd it is to be the author of a story that has now become the source of a modern mythology. Fight Club (both the book and the movie) have grown bigger than the author himself. No doubt, there is a crushing sense of responsibility that goes along with trying to write a sequel to this kind of material, and there has to be a great deal of fear that anything he writes will more than likely disappoint many fans, all of whom have their own expectations of where the narrative should go and what should happen next. In trying to write a sequel to Fight Club, there is no way to please everybody.
And while I appreciate Palahniuk’s attempt to struggle with this fact, the problem for me is that his meditations and reflections in Fight Club 2 are not well integrated into the story itself. As one of the wine drinking women within the book suggests, all of these self-conscious breaks in the narrative are just “too Meta,” (p.89), dragging down the plot and distracting us from becoming immersed in the themes that made the original story so powerfully effective.
I have mixed feeling about Simone de Beauvoir’s first novel, She Came to Stay. I suspect that if I had no previous interest in existentialist philosophy, I would not have put the effort into finishing this 400 page book. It is a story about the relationship between three main protagonists – Francoise, Pierre and Xaviere – and their failed attempt to form a happy “threesome,” in which they try to allow their mutual romantic attractions to flourish alongside their friendship. I found much of the narrative tedious, with characters so foreign to my own experiences that at many points I became confused, unable even to understand their motivations.
The characters in Beauvoir’s story live lives of urban boredom and decadence. Francoise is writing a novel, but most of her time is spent in bars, cafes and restaurants, where, night after night, she smokes, drinks, dances and socializes with a circle of friends and acquaintances. Pierre is part of an acting troupe. He splits his time between rehearsing for his latest play, drinking and going to parties. Xaviere is a young woman from Rouen, a small town outside of Paris, who Francoise and Pierre take under their wings, exposing her to Parisian urban life, encouraging her to become an actress while also competing for her attention and affection. The drama that develops between these characters is reportedly similar to the situation in real-life that threatened to drive a wedge between Beauvoir and Sartre when, in pursuit of their own free and open relationships, jealousies erupted between them. As a biographical detail, this last point is more interesting to me than is the actual novel itself, which drags along, really going nowhere in terms of the action. The characters sit around, drink, smoke, dance and talk. Hostility recurrently erupts, is smoothed over, and then erupts again. In terms of the content of the story itself, then, I found the book monotonous and strange. I kept wondering, “Why are these people bothering with this?” Their “threesome” seemed to me more like an annoyance than anything titillating or exciting.
But since I do have an interest in existentialism, and since I am a fan of Beauvoir’s other philosophical works (such as The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity), I was motivated to look past the superficial dullness of this novel’s story in order to try and understand its deeper, philosophical intent. And that intent is there, scattered in clues throughout the novel’s pages. What I think Beauvoir was attempting to do with She Came to Stay was to illustrate the various ways that people fall into “bad faith,” the primary “sin” that existentialist philosophy counsels us to avoid.
All human consciousnesses are free according to Beauvoir. We live our lives pursuing our own chosen projects while also having to negotiate and contend with people around us who also pursue their own freely chosen goals and projects. According to existentialists, human beings are “thrown” into a world populated by others, and while we cannot avoid living among other people, we can choose how it is that we will comport ourselves toward them. In the course of life, human beings choose to enter into partnerships with one another, sometimes encouraging each other in their freedom and working together to help one another fulfill goals. When people consciously and enthusiastically embrace one another’s freedom, they act “authentically.” However, there are also times when people pursue goals that come into conflict with the goals of others. It is then that we often find the eruption of hostility, and one of the common responses to this is to fall into a state of “bad faith.” In bad faith, we become resentful against the forces around us that keep us from doing what we want, and so we lash out, coming to treat others and ourselves as if we are not at all free, but as if we are objects capable of being manipulated like any other non conscious “thing” in the world. Bad faith can offer a kind of psychological comfort, since it makes us feel as if we are not responsible for our own mistakes and failures, but it is “bad” precisely because it is a lie, according to Beauvoir. Whenever I think of myself as a mere “thing,” capable of being manipulated by others, or when I think of others as mere “things,” to be manipulated by myself, I falsify the reality of what it means of be a human.
In She Came to Stay, all three main characters seem to illustrate differing manifestations of bad faith. The story is told from the perspective of Francoise, whose bad faith is a reaction to her own boredom with empty routine and her increasing awareness of mortality. She realizes that her Parisian lifestyle is a pointless tedium; her most pressing decisions consisting of which restaurants to eat in, and what sort of liquor to drink. “There was nothing but an accumulation of meaningless moments, nothing but a chaotic seething of flesh and thought, with death looming at the end.” (p. 130) Because of this awareness, Francoise uses Xaviere, a pretty young country girl, to distract herself from the ugly truth, hoping that the young woman will inject new excitement and vitality into her life. She wants to initiate Xaviere into the bohemian world of Parisian artists, acting as a mentor and (it seems) romantic companion. Instead of grabbing hold of her own existence by herself and making the decision to change its course altogether, Francoise drags another human being into her tedious world in order to spice things up.
Francoise tells Xaviere, in beginning pages of the story, “as long as you stay in Rouen you will never do anything,” (p. 33) suggesting that the young woman’s destiny lies in where she lives, not in the choices she makes. Consequently, Francoise encourages Xaviere to move to Paris, where she will be supported by Francoise and Pierre, who treat her as raw material with the potential to become a hedonistic bohemian, just like themselves. Xaviere will live in the same hotel as Francoise, she will go dancing at the same clubs, eat the same food, drink the same liquor, and become an actor. She will be a possession; an ornament that others will admire. And Francoise and Pierre will be admired as well for their efforts to save this uncultured country girl from backwardness. In all of this, Xaviere is treated as a mere thing rather than as a full, free human being. When she starts to assert her own will, and threatens to compromise the relationship between Pierre and Francoise, Francoise panics, and begins to see the young woman as a threat rather than as her personal pet.
Pierre is complicit in Francoise’s project, and together they conspire in their plans to mold Xaviere into a flesh and blood embodiment of their shared ideal. However, Pierre’s interest in Xaviere becomes increasingly jealous as he starts to cultivate a romantic interest in her. Neither Pierre nor Francoise are all that concerned with one another’s sexual interest in Xaviere, but what is troubling is Pierre’s growing obsession with her, his desire to possess her and keep her from other men, such as her boyfriend Gerbert. Outraged when he discovers Xavier and Gerbert having sex (which he observes like a peeping tom by peering at them through a keyhole), Pierre finds himself swept up by covetous desires and emotions that threaten to drive a wedge between himself and Francoise and to destroy the “threesome” they share with Xavier.
Pierre’s bad faith is rooted in a self centered desire for those around him to tolerate his own whims and fancies while denying his effects on others. Throughout the story his irrational jealously for Xaviere bubbles up as hostility, which he then projects onto Xaviere herself. Speaking to Francoise, he says, “We wanted to build a real trio, a well-balanced life for three, in which no one was sacrificed. Perhaps it was taking a risk, but at least it was worth trying! But if Xaviere wants to behave like a jealous little bitch, and you have to be the unfortunate victim, while I play the gallant lover, it becomes nothing but a dirty business.” (p. 295) But it is Pierre who is the jealous one, and he is anything but “gallant.” He is more like a child who can’t understand the confusion that he and Francoise must be causing this young woman – a virgin – whose affections are courted from all sides. He desires her precisely because she is young, vital, naive and unpredictable, but at the same time he derides and insults her for acting like a naive and unpredictable young woman. Pierre insists that Xaviere must be free, but he nonetheless wants to possess her, and thus to curtail and control her freedom. All the while, he assures Francoise that it is she, and not Xaviere, that is really special to him. In Pierre, thus, we find a tangled knot of bad faith that derives from his denial of the inconsistencies in his various projects. Simultaneously he want to have a “threesome” in which no one is sacrificed, he wants to retain a special relationship with Francoise, and he wants to possess Xaviere. But these three projects cannot coexist, and for Pierre to act as if they possibly could is to lie to himself.
Xaviere is, in her own way, the most annoying character in the novel. She pouts, mopes and throws tantrums. She is jealous, at various points, of both Francoise and Pierre. She is frivolous and unreliable. But then again, she is just a young, naive and unexperienced girl, so what are we to expect? One wonders, as the novel progresses, why it is that Francoise and Pierre spend so much energy thinking about her, talking about her and trying to control her. The answer, as stated above, is that she is a distraction, helping them forget their own boredom, fear of growing old and despair over the passage of time. On an existential level, their attraction to Xaviere has to with her relationship to temporality. To Xaviere, time means nothing. She lives in the now, reacting to the feelings that pop up in her, moment by moment. While this is what makes her attractive to Francoise and Pierre, it also what makes her unpredictable and unreliable. She believes that no one should make plans or practice and hone their skills, as if to do so would undermine the vital spontaneity of the moment. This represents a contrary form of bad faith to that found in Pierre and Franciose. According to existentialists, humans are, in their essence, temporal beings, and while reflection on the past or the future may at times cause us anguish, the unwillingness to recognize the role of temporality in our lives is delusional. One cannot plan or pursue projects without stepping out of the present, learning from past mistakes and resolving to act in accordance with future goals. Xaviere mistakes lack of discipline and spontaneity for authenticity, not recognizing that to authentically commit to a life project, one has to take hold of life and steer it in the direction that one has freely chosen. Without this sort of longer term perspective, one’s life becomes a series of fits and stops with no overarching shape, purpose or direction. Life becomes chaotic, tedious and meaningless.
The sorts of bad faith illustrated by Beauvoir in She Came to Stay, then, might be divided into two sorts. On the one hand the characters of Francoise and Pierre are exemplars of a kind of bad faith that stems from the attempt to flee from an overly attuned awareness of temporality. Boredom and fear of growing old are their motivations. On the other hand, the character of Xaviere is an exemplar of a kind of bad faith stemming from a complete ignorance of temporality. Because of her youth and inexperience, she is not even aware of the power that time exercises over human choice.
It is interesting that there are two key points in the narrative when Francoise appears to really become confident, self assured and happy in her own powers. The first is when she sleeps with Xaviere’s boyfriend, Gerbert. The other is when she takes steps to kill Xaviere. Together, these two acts seem symbolic of her complete domination of the young woman that she previously claimed as her protege; the complete reduction of Xaviere into a thing-in-itself. In the first instance, Francoise proclaims to herself, while gazing in a mirror, “I’ve won.” (p. 375) In the second instance, after turning the gas on in Xaviere’s bedroom, Francoise thinks to herself, “I have done it of my own free will.” The novel closes with the assertion, “She had chosen herself.” (p. 404)
To live authentically, and to avoid bad faith, a person must grab hold of his or her situation. But in doing so, it must also be recognized that the human situation is one in which we are thrown among others to whom we have responsibilities. Humans are free, and because of this, as we make our way through life pursuing our own projects and goals, we are destined to run into resistance. When this happens it is our responsibility to honor the freedom in ourselves and others and to avoid lapsing into resentful ways of thought. If we fail to do so, then we will find ourselves surrounded by enemies instead of neighbors, and life will become a hostile struggle for control rather than a stimulating adventure of “being-with-others” in a world freely chosen and enthusiastically shared. The characters in She Came to Stay have not learned this lesson, and perhaps that is why all of them are so petty, hateful, jealous and unlikable.
Information on Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings is now appearing on the Edinburgh University Press website. The publication date of the hardback edition is listed as September 2017.
In the US, Cinematic Nihilism will be distributed by Oxford University Press.
Exposing and illustrating how an ongoing engagement with nihilistic alienation may contribute to, rather than detract from, the value of life, Cinematic Nihilism both challenges and builds upon past scholarship that has scrutinised nihilism in the media, but which has generally over-emphasised its negative and destructive aspects. Through case studies of popular films, including Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, Dawn of the Deadand The Human Centipede, and with chapters on Scotland’s cinematic portrayal as both a site of ‘nihilistic sacrifice’ and as ‘nowhere in particular’, this book presents a necessary corrective, re-emphasising the constructive potential of cinematic nihilism and casting it as a phenomenon that need not be overcome.
I have submitted the manuscript for Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings to the publisher, Edinburgh University Press. It looks like the cover has already been posted on the Amazon UK website. The official release date is quite appropriate: Halloween, 2017.
In April, I’m looking forward to the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, where I’ll make a presentation to the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor. My presentation, “Humor, Nihilism and Film,” will address the ways in which nihilistic incongruity is implicated in both the humorous and the horrific aspects of films like Trainspotting and The Human Centipede.
Currently, I’m putting the finishing touches on a paper about spiritual homelessness and punk rock that will be part of a collection, edited by Juneko Robinson, tentatively titled Thinking Through Things. The collection focuses on the interconnection between artifacts and human thought.
The new year is off to a nihilistic start!
It 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.
The 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.
A 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.