Moray Coast

Existentialism - Study Notes

EXISTENTIALISM by Thomas R. Flynn (Very Short Introduction Series, 2006).

Thomas R. Flynn is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy at Emory University, Georgia, USA. He is the author of various publications in the field of existentialist philosophy. Before going any further I must add a ‘disclaimer’ to my summary of his book as I have no prior knowledge of Existentialism. At university I studied ‘analytical philosophy’ as taught in the UK, USA and Australia; existentialism was not on the curriculum at Exeter University in the 1960’s to the best of my recollection. I must admit I find its ‘jargon’ unfamiliar and sometimes baffling!

In the Preface to his book Flynn relates how existentialism ‘is commonly associated with Left Bank Parisian cafes and the ‘family’ of philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir who gathered there in the years immediately following the liberation of Paris at the end of World War II. One imagines off-beat, avant-garde intellectuals, attached to their cigarettes, listening to jazz as they hotly debate the implications of their new-found political and artistic liberty. The mood is one of enthusiasm, creativity, anguished self-analysis, and freedom – always freedom.’

This image ‘packages’ existentialism as ‘a cultural phenomenon of a certain historical period’. This is in many ways the outcome of ‘the existentialists’ urge for contemporary relevance’ as a way of doing philosophy. This has led ‘subsequent generations to view them as having the currency of yesterday’s news’. It all seems rather dated. Flynn says this is a misreading of existentialist thought which he hopes to correct.

Before embarking on a summary of Flynn’s book I should like to quote (in full) the entry for ‘existentialism’ given in the Pan Dictionary of Philosophy, 1984 edition:-
“A philosophical trend or attitude, as distinct from a particular dogma or system. Its origins are attributed to Kierkegaard (Danish philosopher, 1813-1855). It became influential in continental Europe in the second quarter of the 20th century, through the writings of Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, and Sartre. Existentialism is generally opposed to rationalist and empiricist doctrines that assume that the universe is a determined, ordered system intelligible to the contemplative observer who can discover the natural laws that govern all beings and the role of reason as the power guiding human activity.

“In the existentialist view the problem of being must take precedence over that of knowledge in philosophical investigations. Being cannot be made a subject of objective enquiry; it is revealed to the individual by reflection on his own unique concrete existence in time and space. Existence is basic: it is the fact of the individual’s presence and participation in a changing and potentially dangerous world. Each self-aware individual understands his own existence in terms of his experience of himself and of his situation. The self of which he is aware is a thinking being which has beliefs, hopes, fears, desires, the need to find a purpose, and a will that can determine his actions. The problem of existence can have no significance if viewed impartially or in abstraction; it can only be seen in terms of the impact that experiences make on a particular existent. No individual has a predetermined place or function within a rational system and no-one can deduce his supposed duty through reasoning; everyone is compelled to assume the responsibility of making choices. Man is in a condition of anxiety arising from the realization of his necessary freedom of choice, of his ignorance of the future, of his awareness of manifold possibilities, and of the finiteness of an existence that was preceded by and must terminate in nothingness.

“Existentialist thinkers distinguish between ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ forms of existence. Some make the distinction on the basis of the individual’s endeavour to transcend a particular situation, the alternative being a denial of liberty and abandonment to a form of anonymity as a creature of circumstances. Others deny the possibility of transcending one’s own point of view and claim that moral life is an illusion: authenticity is the preservation of an individual personal identity which is in danger of being eroded by deceptions, under the influence and demands of society. Yet others regard the recognition of other free individuals and communication with them as a criterion of authentic existence.”

I think this summary is very helpful because it conveys, in a few well-written paragraphs, the basics of a complex set of ideas. Of course it raises many questions, so let us turn to Flynn’s book for answers. Chapter 1 is ‘Philosophy as a way of life’. He explains that ‘despite its claim to be novel and unprecedented, existentialism represents a long tradition in the history of philosophy in the West, extending back at least to Socrates. ...Its focus is on the proper way of acting [i.e. behaving] rather than on an abstract set of theoretical truths.’

This concept of philosophy as a way of living was widespread among the ancient Greek philosophers, but so also was the pursuit of ‘basic truths about the universe’. As Flynn says, ‘it was this more theoretical approach that led to the rise of science and came to dominate the teaching of philosophy in the medieval and modern periods’. So there are two different uses of the word ‘truth’: the scientific and the moral. ‘Socrates exhibited a particular way of life, rather than achieving a certain clarity of argument or insight in the way Aristotle did’.

This ‘schism’ in philosophy continues to modern times. So Kierkegaard in the 19th century conceived of ‘truth as subjectivity’ – in contrast, presumably, to truth as objectivity. He said, ‘the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die’. Flynn elaborates on these ideas, but he does not provide a critique. Although Kierkegaard ‘allowed for the common scientific uses of objective reflection’, he questioned ‘the ability of such reasoning to access the deep personal convictions that guide our lives’.

But why shouldn’t it? Kierkegaard’s views involve difficulties. Firstly, how can you be certain that to base your life on ‘what’s true for you’ doesn’t turn out to be self-deception or living a delusion? Kierkegaard seems to want to ‘ring-fence’ his beliefs, making them immune from criticism or appraisal. But if everybody else thinks of truth the same way as Kierkegaard, then ‘truth’ is no different from purely personal belief with no clear distinction between matters of opinion and matters of fact, and ‘truth’ as such loses its meaning. We could add that objective truth is not only important in science as Kierkegaard acknowledged, it’s also important in the law court, in government, in the accountant’s office, at the surgery and in all other facets of life, relationships in particular.

Flynn relates how, in modern science, ‘it appeared that whatever could be weighed and measured (quantified) could give us reliable knowledge, whereas the non-measurable was left to the realm of mere opinion.’ Flynn also notes that this ‘left some of our most important questions not only unanswered but unanswerable. Are our ethical rules and values merely the expression of our subjective preferences?’ The Logical Positivists said precisely that.

Flynn soon fastens on to apparent shortcomings in science itself, however. For example Jean-Paul Sartre mentioned Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in atomic physics where the instruments we use to examine the behaviour of orbital electrons interfere with what we are observing. The question of whether light is a wave or a particle does not as yet seem to be resolved. The notion of ‘knowledge as measurability’ seemed to be questionable. Flynn does not acknowledge however that it does not follow that science is discredited simply because it cannot always answer every question. Or again, objective truth can be queried because sometimes our sense-perceptions deceive us, but how often does that happen?

Flynn relates how the existentialists’ account of space and time restricts itself to how we experience space and time in our day-to-day lives, and the quality and meaning they have for us. This is ‘lived experience’, a perspective which can of course be informative and enlightening. As is well known, time passes quickly when you’re enjoying yourself but slowly when you’re not (such as waiting for a bus or, even worse, visiting the dentist). Existentialism, then, is not concerned with what time is, but how we experience it.

Existentialism therefore follows the ‘phenomenological’ approach developed by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Phenomenology means to start from one’s own conscious experiences independently of the ‘causal’ explanations for them that scientists (such as neurologists) might propose. There is nothing obviously ‘wrong’ with Husserl’s approach, but it does lead one to ponder whether existentialism as a subject of study should be reclassified as a branch of psychology rather than philosophy, although some people might consider this contentious.

Chapter 1 of Flynn’s book includes a summary of what he calls the ‘Five themes of existentialism’, as follows:-
1. Existence precedes essence. What you are (your essence) is the result of your choices (your existence) rather than the reverse. Essence is not destiny. You are what you make yourself to be.

2. Time is of the essence. We are fundamentally time-bound beings. Unlike measurable ‘clock’ time, lived time is qualitative: the ‘not yet’, the ‘already’, and the ‘present’ differ among themselves in meaning and value.

3. Humanism. Existentialism is a person-centred philosophy. Though not anti-science, its focus is on the human individual’s pursuit of identity and meaning amidst the social and economic pressures of mass society for superficiality and conformism.

4. Freedom/responsibility. Existentialism is a philosophy of freedom. Its basis is the fact that we can stand back from our lives and reflect on what we have been doing. In this sense, we are always ‘more’ than ourselves. But we are as responsible as we are free.

5. Ethical considerations are paramount. Though each existentialist understands the ethical, as with ‘freedom’, in his or her own way, the underlying concern is to invite us to examine the authenticity of our personal lives and of our society.

These five precepts read rather like a collection of aphorisms on how to live in relation to others in society. We need to look more closely at ‘authenticity’, although this is dealt with in Chapter 4. We noted from the Pan Dictionary quotation that different existentialists use this word very differently, ranging from the need or requirement for the individual to resist social pressures or – conversely - to relate to other people. ‘Essence’ and ‘existence’ are not particularly clear either, and could benefit from fuller explanation.

Chapter 2 is ‘Becoming an individual’.
This could be quite a good title for a chapter in a psychology textbook, but I don’t think that’s quite what Flynn has in mind. He starts by saying that ‘existentialism is known as an individualistic philosophy’, although he says he will qualify this view in Chapter 5. But he notes that the underlying theme of many existentialists is that ‘the pull in modern society is away from individualism and towards conformity’. Before going any further, is this statement true or false and how can it be checked out or settled one way or the other? Some people say that on the contrary, the development of consumerism facilitates and enhances individuality and choice rather than the reverse. No doubt the debates on this question can be prolonged. But a very obvious point we can make right now is that this is not a philosophical question at all. It is a sociological question which can only be answered through enquiry and research as to the facts.
However, various philosophers have written on the relationship between the individual and other people or ‘society at large’. Flynn mentions Aristotle, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Hegel who all had things to say. Kierkegaard for example referred to ‘the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious’ stages of growing up and becoming an adult individual. The views of Sartre and Camus are also mentioned. Flynn discusses Nietzsche at some length who emphasized freedom and the exercise of power by the individual.

Of course, the problems of growing up and adjusting to other people and society are issues which almost every human being has to face and resolve one way or another. I think it is debatable whether philosophers have any special knowledge or expertise in these matters, except perhaps to comment on ethical issues. Excellent advice on life and its problems is available from parents, friends, teachers, psycho-analysts, agony aunts, priests and many others. It is hardly a philosophical issue at all. If ‘becoming an individual’ is studied within any particular academic discipline, I would suggest its obvious ‘home’ is inter-personal psychology, which ties in with what I said a moment ago about the subject-area where existentialism should be classified.

Chapter 3 is ‘Humanism: for and against’.
Although not all existentialists are atheists and not all atheists are existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre was both. It appeared that if atheism were true, ‘it seemed to follow that individuals were left to create their own values because there was no moral order in the universe by which they could guide their actions’. But ‘this freedom was itself the ultimate value to which one could appeal’ (p45), although as David Hume would have said I don’t think this necessarily follows. Sartre gave a public lecture on freedom in 1945 and criticism came from the Communists and the Catholics. Both argued (in their different ways) that Sartre’s ‘new philosophy was the incarnation of bourgeois individualism and that it was totally insensitive to the demands of social justice’.

Sartre had to recognize the moral criticisms of existentialism as an individualistic philosophy. So he argued that ‘no-one could be free unless everyone were free’, which seems to convey ‘a sense of responsibility’ for others and even for society as a whole. Accordingly Sartre could reasonably maintain that existentialism (or his version of it at any rate) was a humanistic philosophy where the freedom of the individual, with ‘possibilities of choice’, was at its centre, but with respect for the freedom of others.

However, existentialists had to confront an awkward theoretical snag with the whole idea of ‘freedom’. Freudian psychology seemed to suggest that if our thoughts, decisions and ultimately actions are predetermined in the first place by the hidden, mysterious workings of the ‘subconscious’, then except in a superficial, procedural sense, we are not really ‘free agents’. Sartre rejected Freud’s ideas because ‘they rob us of our freedom and responsibility’, but it is not clear from Flynn’s account whether he simply turned his back on Freud’s ideas as a matter of ‘policy’ or succeeded in showing that they were mistaken.
Understandably Freud’s ideas were a worry to the existentialists, but ironically the answer lay north of the Channel. British philosopher Sir Karl Popper (Anglo-Austrian to be precise) pointed out that the Freudian notion of the subconscious was untestable in a strictly scientific sense; also the evidence was anecdotal and speculative. At best the idea was very largely a conjecture. Maybe the existentialists needn’t have worried; in fact not all of them did.

In the remainder of Chapter 3 Flynn briefly sketches the thinking of Heidegger, Marcel, Jaspers and Merleau-Ponty. Heidegger (1889-1976) was puzzled by the notion of ‘being’ and asked questions such as ‘what is being?’ and ‘what is nothingness?’. Analytic philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap regarded such questions as meaningless except perhaps as purely semantic enquiries on the meanings of words. Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), a noted playwright, was a religious existentialist. Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) was trained in medicine and was also a religious existentialist. They asked questions like ‘why is there anything at all rather than nothing?’, a question which most analytic philosophers would regard as unanswerable unless they were asking a scientific question about how the universe started, in which case their question falls within the purview of Physics. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) was interested in freedom, consciousness and mind/body identity. They all seem a very interesting group of thinkers.

Chapter 4 is ‘Authenticity’.
This has often been defined as ‘the quality of being genuine’ or ‘being true to oneself’ as distinct from self-deception or passively accepting the views and values of others uncritically. Its importance has been recognized since ancient times, not only by philosophers such as Socrates but also by theologians such as Augustine. It is also a recurrent theme in literature and in plays, often in comedy, satire and sometimes tragedy.

The existentialists gave authenticity particular moral importance. Kierkegaard maintained that ‘the authentic self was the personally chosen self, as opposed to one’s public or ‘herd’ identity. Likewise Heidegger maintained that ‘to be authentic or genuine was to recognize resolutely one’s own individuality... as distinct from one’s public identity’. These views came to dominate subsequent existentialist thought. The tension between ‘the individual’ and ‘society’ is hardly a new issue; it’s ‘as old as the hills’ and thinkers have discussed and written about it long before the existentialists.

The major difficulty, as Flynn makes clear on p63, is that ‘we are awash in obligations and values’. The implication seems to be that these are at variance with our own individuality. Whilst some of these obligations and values may be ‘ours’, others, maybe most of them, derive from other people’s or society’s expectations and/or requirements. The existentialist challenges the individual ‘to own up to our self-defining choices; to make them our own’. We should be aware of our own situation and predicament in life, remembering we have choices which are ours alone. It is very tempting to behave as others do if this is seen as a sort of ‘comfort zone’ where we don’t have to think things through for ourselves.

To surrender our choices to what other people might think or expect is to abdicate our own responsibility for ourselves, and we should resist the temptation to blame other people or ‘society’ when we realize our lives could be different. This is called ‘bad faith’, a failure to be ‘your own person’, a failure to be authentically yourself. ‘The inauthentic person, in Sartre’s view, is living a lie’. He also said ‘we are without excuse’.

All of this is sound advice, although it is important to avoid one or two misunderstandings. It is important to remember that most social and moral conventions are not arbitrary and do in fact have the specific objective of protecting you the individual as much as other people. Without rules and laws against theft or violent assault, for example, ‘the individual’ could end up in a very unhappy situation indeed. If we think otherwise we are ‘kidding ourselves’ and that too is arguably a form of ‘bad faith’. Sometimes there can be very good reasons for behaving as others do. There can be a distinction between ‘the individual’ and ‘society’, but not necessarily a dichotomy if the individual is part of society. Simone de Beauvoir was aware, also, that the risk of rejecting any ultimate values at all could lead to nihilism.

In connection with self-deception, recall how we wondered whether Kierkegaard was doing precisely that with his fixation on what was ‘true’ for him, disavowing the notion of objective truth when it came to his personal beliefs. Was he guilty of ‘bad faith’?

Chapter 5 is entitled ‘A chastened individualism? Existentialism and social thought’.
We noted in Chapter 3 that ‘Sartre had to recognize the moral criticisms of existentialism as an individualistic philosophy’. So did other existentialists. The ethic of ‘authenticity’ and the critique of ‘bad faith’ did not seem to address ‘pressing social issues’. However, existentialism was ‘uniformly critical of bourgeois society with its penchant for conformity and material comfort, its pursuit of security and aversion to risk, and its unimaginative conservatism’ (pp81-82). But Flynn asks, ‘does this translate into a full-blown social theory?’. Obviously not; it was an attitude more than anything else.

In the 19th century Kierkegaard and Hegel were very critical of the societies in which they lived, but both of them were ‘more concerned with the formation of individuals than with the transformation of society’. In the 20th century Heidegger, Jaspers and other intellectuals were more concerned with the rise of Bolshevism as a threat to Western civilization, as well as with ‘the crass materialism and technologism of Anglo-American capitalism’ (still alive and kicking!). Heidegger, in fact, ‘flirted’ with Nazism. Present day philosopher Jurgen Habermas (1929- ) said that ‘by making the individual the focal point of their philosophies they [that is, the existentialists] overlooked the intersubjective and social aspect of human life’, though Flynn regards this as ‘inaccurate’.

After World War II Karl Jaspers wrote on German guilt and discerned four categories of guilt: criminal guilt, political guilt, moral guilt and ‘metaphysical’ guilt (this being based on the solidarity of all human beings). So the idea of responsibility was entering existentialist thought. Jaspers went on to comment that it is not enough to change institutions; we must change ourselves. Some years earlier, thinking of ‘world-scale suicide’ as a possibility, Gabriel Marcel said ‘existentialism demands a social conscience’. It appeared, then, that the notion of moral obligation was beginning to enter existentialist thinking in various ways. To have freedom entailed responsibility for the freedom of others. But Marcel was a critic not only of totalitarianism but also of contemporary materialist ‘mass society’.

Sartre abandoned his individualism after his experience as a conscript in World War II. Although at heart he was a political anarchist, he was also a moralist moving increasingly towards the political left over time. How he reconciled these somewhat disparate tendencies at an intellectual level is not entirely clear, however. Albert Camus was more of a pacifist and he and Sartre had their differences of view, as did Merleau-Ponty who disassociated himself from Sartre as being too left-wing.

Simone de Beauvoir made further contributions to the notion of responsibility within existentialism when she wrote about the place of women in society. She is now recognized as a pioneer in feminist thought. At the end of the chapter, Flynn relates how ‘social existentialism’ began to emerge in Sartre’s writings:- ‘There are only individuals and real relations among them... Social groups and institutions can possess qualities that surpass their individual members without destroying the latters’ freedom and responsibility which are enriched, in the case of group activity, or compromised in the case of institutional inertia, but never completely destroyed’ (pp102-103).

Chapter 6 is ‘Existentialism in the 21st century’.
Existentialism ‘reached its high point in the years immediately following the Second World War’. ‘It has been supplanted by two successive waves of French thought, structuralism in the 1960s and post-structuralism in the 1970s and 1980s, after which the momentum dissipated’. But existentialism is not over and done with – ‘it continues to defend individual freedom, responsibility, and authenticity in the midst of various forms of determinism, conformism, self-deception, technologism (etc.)’.

Structuralism was inspired by the posthumous publications of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). It ‘considers language to be a systematic arrangement of signs that both make possible and limit communication, much like the skeleton both makes possible and limits how we can move’. The structure of language was held to determine both how human beings think and how they relate to each other. Post-structuralism had the unfortunate side-effect of ‘decentring the subject’ in its studies of language and social structures. But the existentialists, of course, wanted to keep the individual firmly at the centre of things.

Considerably earlier, around 1930 British and American philosophy had begun to move ‘away from experience, ideas and systems of thought to the analysis of concepts and ordinary language’. I well remember from my university days how English philosopher J.L. Austin’s book ‘How To Do Things With Words’ (1955) was highly praised for its scholarship, but it read more like a study in lexicography rather than philosophy!

But not all Anglo-American philosophy was like the work of Austin (and various others). Two American philosophers are worthy of particular note, Judith Jarvis Thomson and John Rawls who both made major and enduring contributions to Ethics and to Social Philosophy. Likewise on the continent Jean-Francois Lyotard, Habermas, Foucault and Emmanuel Levinas have succeeded in keeping Ethics and Social Philosophy at the forefront of their concerns.

RHS, 2014.