Thursday, 4 February 2010

Making Sense of Existentialism

Warning: epic-length post.

Jon suggested I write a post that tried to make sense of existentialism. I'm currently off from work nursing a nauseated stomach, so maybe I'll give this a shot. I admit I have never been fond of existentialism, or at least certain strands of it, and so it hasn't ever been something I had ever studied of my own choosing. This being said, I've been enrolled in philosophy courses before and dealt with this school of thought there. Like Eastern religions and the more subtle forms of Western philosophy, existentialism is, I think, one of those worldviews which requires time more than rational premise-to-premise analysis to comprehend. When I first encountered it in high school I managed to deceive myself into thinking I understood it. In my first year of university I was thoroughly disabused of this notion. Now, after having existentialism reside in the back, cobwebbed corners of my consciousness, I have looked into the matter at Jon's urging, and think I might have a grasp of it. I am somewhat aclimatized. (Maybe I'm wrong; if you're an expert in existentialism and you're reading this, feel free to point out my errors.)

Don't let the accompanying picture fool you; existentialism has little to do with chain-smoking. The figures in the picture--Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus--are all important figures in the development of this philosophy. I could take you through existentialism's development, from its grandfathers Kierkegaard and Neitzsche down into the present, but I don't think this is really the way to do it. If you wanted an in-depth understanding of the philosophy, this would be necessary, since each thinker contributed a different version, as it were, to the whole picture. (As you may well know, in the same way that religious traditions and scientific departments not only allow wiggle-room in individuals' beliefs but are in fact made up of an aggragate of individuals' beliefs, so too are schools of philosophy not much more than the common denominators in multiple philosophers' systems.) For our purposes, whoever, I feel we would lose the thread that the runs through them and get lost in the details. So I will avoid names except when necessary. This being said, those three names are ones worth remembering, because if you did want to look into the matter a little more, these are the people who best expressed the existentialist outlook.
Let's get to it. First, take a look at the word itself: existentialism. The philosophy is based on the idea of existence. Moreover, it is based on a particular concept of existence, in this case that it precedes essense. "Existence" and "essense" are specific terms with long, meandering philosophical pedigrees, so I'll try to explain what they mean by saying that existence precedes essense. According to the existentialists, people exist before they have an identity. When you or I, as a discrete individual, comes into the world, we are isolated and without an identity. Only after we encounter the world do we begin to accumulate something of an identity, but even in then it's not a static thing. We build who we are by what we do. I have heard this described by the following metaphor: the human person is a paintbrush that paints itself.* We are built up of our past decisions, but we mustn't let that fool us into thinking that these decisions limit what we do. No, each decision is made freely.
This is the second important marker in existentialism: free will. The philosophy holds that all of our decisions are made in radical freedom. We alone are responsible for all of our decisions, and cannot pass this blame on to anything else. In a related move, the existentialists claim that we can choose to adjust our values at any time, and thus are responsible for the values we hold as well. This is different from saying that we have no values; acting without values, or randomly, is a refusal to take responsibility for our actions. However, to claim that we had no choice but to act in a certain way is also a refusal to take responsibility for our actions, as we could always have changed those values.
It is in this important element--free will--that existential is most different from naturalism. Both schools of thought are modernist philosophies that tend to produce urban and pessimistic plays or literature in which characters appear desperate and human society comes off looking hypocritical. They are thus sometimes confused. In fact, they are very different. Naturalism is a philosophic and aesthetic movement which supposes that people have no free will; we are mechanized animals which are driven by our instincts, devoid of real reason, free will, or civilization. Existentialism disagrees entirely; according to Sartre and his co-philosophers, humans, while not rational, are free to make decisions. Their 'instincts' or biological predispositions cannot be held responsible for our actions. We are responsible for our actions, and neurology can get off at the next stop, please and thank-you.
Further, we cannot pass responsiblity off onto reason, either. We are not reasonable, and the universe is inherently chaotic, so even if we were reasonable, it wouldn't do an ounce of good. We must make our decisions in spite of the irrational world. In this way you'll notice that existentialism is different from new atheism or scientism: while many existentialists are atheists, this is the only thing they have in common with folks like Dawkins or Hitchens, who believe strongly in humanity's ability to reason about our ordered universe. According to the existentialists, believing that humans are rational is just another attempt to avoid facing the truth.
What is that truth? Simply, this: the world is without meaning. It is absurd. We are each alone in a subjective world. No set of values is inherently true or stable, and the world does not have any meaning of its own. (Or perhaps it does, but whatever meaning it intrisically has is only relevant to itself and accessible by itself, so whether it has its own meaning or not makes no difference to you.) In this world, we are wholly responsible for our actions, but these actions have no inherent meaning. When we realize this, we face the Absurd.
Now, Absurdism is a movement of its own, which claims that all the world is absurd, like existentialism. The difference is that absurdism stops there: the world is absurd, and our goal is to live with and perhaps even embrace this. Theatre of the Absurd** develops these ideas, though to say that Theatre of the Absurd is either always existentialist or absurdist would be a gross and inaccurate generalization. Existentialism, then, says that we cannot sit still with sheer meaninglessness. Rather, our goal is to construct our own meaning for the world. We must draft our own values and live by them, taking full responsibility for having made the values ourselves. There is a third camp which is relevant to this paragraph, and that camp is Nihilism. Nihilism believes that there is no meaning at all, that we can't even create meaning, and that idea of 'meaning' in the world is itself meaningless. Not even Absurdism will go that far; Absurdism allows that the idea of values exist and that searching for them is productive, even though that search will only yeild the Absurd. Wikipedia has a nice little chart summing this up.
The goal of existentialism, then, is to accept our radical responsibility for our actions in a chaotic world by creating our own meaning. I repeat that we are not trapped in our meaning, because we create it ourselves. Because we can change it at any minute, we are still responsible for how we act. Facing our own responsibility and generating our own meaning, or values, is called living "authentically"; trying to pass the responsibility to someone or something else or claiming that the world is without meaning and therefore that our decisions mean nothing is living "inauthentically."
Now, a person may come along and say, "Well hold on. There are things that limit our actions. For instance, I cannot ever choose to run faster than the speed of light. It's just not possible." Existentialism is well aware of this fact.*** You cannot make decisions against facticity. This word basically denotes the unalterable facts about the world and yourself. For instance, you cannot change the decisions you made in the past. You cannot change the physical limitations of your body. You cannot change the social and political situations (though you can change what the social and political situations of the future might be). In other words, you exist in a context. If you ignore facticity, you are being inauthentic. However, if you think that facticity in any way shapes what your decisions within that context are, you're also being inauthentic. Let's say you've lived a life that is deceitful, murderous, bigamous, and cruel. If you choose to ignore your past and make the rest of your decisions with a 'fresh' start, you're being inauthentic. If you say that your past obviously makes you a deceiving, murdering, cruel bigamist and that you really have no choice but to continue a life of immorality and crime, then you are also being inauthentic. If you accept your past, face it squarely, choose a system of values that understands your past decisions as immoral, and live your life in compliance with this system of morals, taking responsibility both for your previous actions and the ones you make now, you are being authentic. The same goes for your place in society and what your body is capable of.
According to existentialists, we humans, in the condition I outlined above, often exhibit numerous states which are akin to emotional states. The most important of these are angst and despair. Angst is the feeling we get when faced with our own freedom to action. It's the feeling of standing at the of a cliff and realizing that not only might we fall off, but that there is nothing to prevent us from throwing ourselves off. We can always choose to destroy ourselves, and we cannot create any external barriers to prevent ourselves. The choice is ours. A housemate of mine, who shall remain unnamed, once told me that he felt this when he was on 'shrooms. He was shaving and realized that nothing was stopping him from slitting his own throat. It was not as though he thought he would kill himself; what scared him is that he could. Afterwards he said he didn't think would do 'shrooms again. An existentialist would suggest that he did not want to do 'shrooms because he disliked the truth the experience showed him.
Despair is what we experience when one of the facets of the identity we've created for ourselves is put in jeopardy. A common example is when an athlete receives an injury which permenantly prevents her from playing sports. Somehow who defines themselves as a model citizen and then, for whatever reason, commits a serious crime, would then feel that their identity is threatened. According to existentialism, we are always in a state of despair, since our constructred identity is never secure. This is not to say that we are always despairing, but that we are always in this specifically defined state of despair.
I will also say that existentialism has particular things to say about the Other and the Look (or Gaze), but these don't seem integral to the position, in my opinion. If you want, you could always look into it. Existentialism's Other is significantly different from post-colonialism's, and its Gaze is also different from feminism's.
Finally, I will again remind you that no two existentialists believe quite the same thing. A particular rift is between atheistic existentialists and theistic, often Christian, existentialists. In many ways they have the same opinions, but the Christian existentialists believe there is something behind the Absurd--namely, God--which does endow the world with meaning. However, God is 'invisible' to reason, and in order to access this meaning humans must make a leap of faith, a free decision to believe in God, without any justification. Such a leap of faith, to the Christian existentialist, is the only way to construct your own meaning. Notice, though, that meaning is still constructed and that the individual is still responsible for accepting it as his own. To say, "I do this because the Bible says so," is in this view inauthentic; only saying, "I do this because I have decided to accept what the Bible says, and the Bible says I should do this, so I have decided to do this," is authentic. Kierkegaard,**** one of those grandfathers of existentialism, is the most obvious forerunner of this line of thought, while Nietzsche is more clearly the forerunner of atheistic existentialism, though both contributed ideas to all streams of existentialism.
One thing I also did not spend much time discussing is existential art. From its beginnings, existentialism has been developed and spread as much through literature and drama as through philosophical discursive writing. Perhaps this is because existentialism to some degree requires immersion to follow comprehend: you must live in its worldview to grasp it, and literature is a way of doing this. (See Michael Ward's Planet Narnia for a similar idea; he suggests the Lewis wanted to advocate particular Christian symbols not by discursive writing, but by creating stories embodying the worldview and inviting readers to inhabit the stories and therein the worldviews.) Anyway, there are a lot of artists who draw on existential themes or try to create works embodying existentialism. Wikipedia's article on existentialism can help you out in this case, since to list every existentialist artist would be a waste of space.
Jon, I hope this helps crystalize the position. Other readers, I hope this also helped you understand the position. In this concluding paragraph, I want to emphasize that I am not an existentialist. I do not believe much of what's up there. About the only thing I will accept whole-heartedly is that we must take responsibility for our actions. (Oh, I'll also accept that we are not fully rational.) I do not think we have radical free will; rather, it is my suspicion that we have only limited free will. I do not think that the universe is meaningless; rather, I think that there are objective and universal values. Further, as I once heard a pastor say, "What if I like being lazy and inauthentic? If there are no values, there are no values." That is, I don't see how the existentialists can claim that we 'must' be authentic or that our 'goal' is authenticity when, according to them, all values are subjective and constructed. This alone makes me a pretty lousy existentialist. However, one cannot reject a position without endeavouring to understand it, or at least you should not try to get other people to reject it if you don't understand it; for this reason, I am happy to try to explain existentialism.
Okay, time to go, curl up on the coach, and try to forget about my miserable stomach.
*I had trouble with this metaphor the first (and only) time I heard it. By good luck I remember it, and now it makes sense to me. The key is to stop taking this so literally, and to stop applying the logic you already think you know to it. If you want to understand this worldview, you must take it on its own terms at first. Only after this can you critique it, if you like.
** Theatre of the Absurd is a fascinating dramatic form which pushes theatrical conventions. Rather like dreams, actors will switch characters during the second act and then repeat the first act pertty much verbatim, only in new roles; "audience members" will get up join the acting, while the cast will step down and join the audience; each character could quite possible be two or three other characters in disguise; language and communication breaks down, moving through double entendre into utter nonsense. For an excellent example, see The Real Inspector Hound. Woody Allen's God has many characteristics of Theatre of the Absurd, as well.
*** For the reader's information, this sort of objection is known as a 'strawman arguement.' A strawman arguement is where you come up with a pretty stupid claim, say it's part of your opponent's position, and then disprove it easily, thereby 'disproving' your opponent's arguement. This is a silly, underhanded, invalid, and unsporting way of going about philosophy. Please do not do it. You only wind up looking like a fool yourself.
****Kierkegaard, according to one of those Facebook quizzes, is my philosophical analogue.

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