Monday, August 20, 2007

Existentialism: Common Characterizations and Criticisms

The following represent some initial thoughts about existentialism for an upcoming course on the subject (with some help from John Macquarrie's Existentialism).

1. Existentialism is irrationalist in its tendency. If true, this charge would disqualify existentialism as a philosophy. Since philosophy must be guided by reason, the “lover of wisdom” cannot affirm a vision clouded by passion and prejudice. Of course, the philosopher cannot feign neutrality in all things because human existence requires involvement in human affairs. However, even if the philosopher feels the call of irrational sentiment as she/he becomes involved in the world, we still expect the philosopher to be critical, analytical, free from partisan bias, and devoted to truth for truth’s sake. Insofar as we demand these qualities, we also expect some capacity for detachment or “rising above” the flux of passion and prejudice.

Of course, Kierkegaard does valorize passionate participation in life and love. His “knight of faith” promotes a way of life inimical to the philosopher’s detached reason, but it does so only insofar as that life of reason is posed as the antidote to excess passion. In other words, Kierkegaard does not oppose reason so much as the narrow form of reason that fails to understand the fullness of human experience and thus fails to accept the limits of reason. Once reason is properly understood, Kierkegaard assumes that it can coexist peacefully with the passions; in other words, it is reasonable to admit that reason has its limits and that some aspects of life involve making commitments or decisions that are not and cannot be the result of discursive reasoning.

Existentialism loses its philosophical character when it becomes an outright attack on logic or an exaltation of the absurd. However, as an admission of the complexity and even mystery in human existence, existentialism does not degrade reason or logic as much as it notes its limit in the many layers of life.

2. Existentialism is a form of amoralism, if not immoralism. If authenticity becomes the highest calling, then what limits can we summon to restrain our actions? If existentialism stresses moral freedom, what norms can we advert to in order to guide this freedom? To consider the case of moral freedom, existentialist philosophy usually calls for a heightened sense of responsibility. To be sure, the responsibility is not grounded on any sort of legalistic system of norms, but it nevertheless provides the basis for a check on the “raw power” of freedom. As for authenticity, there is a real concern here. Existentialist ethics would need to derive some sort of norms from the structure of existence in order to differentiate “good” forms of authenticity from “bad” ones.

3. Existentialism promotes an excessive degree of individualism and, relatedly, subjectivism. It is true that existentialism typically opposes forms of judgment and responsibility that amount to submerging oneself in the collective conscience (the “they,” as Heidegger puts it). Furthermore, even the most rational philosopher must admit the pure objectivity and detachment are fictions or delusions. To some extent, individualism and subjectivism in existentialist philosophy are forms of protest against distorted forms of being-with-others.

However, Kierkegaard explicitly ranks fellowship lower than the “single individual.” Furthermore, Kierkegaard frequently draws on autobiographical elements in his “philosophical” accounts, thereby exemplifying his valorization of subjectivism. However, Marcel and Buber advocate a theory of intersubjectivity. Still, one might wonder whether their approach, focused as it is on relations among individuals, can fully capture the complexity and abstraction of the contemporary world in which many relations concern impersonal groups—nations, corporations, races, etc. The political role of existentialism may be simply criticizing all dehumanizing forms of collectivism. But we need some collective forms of behavior.

4. Existentialism is too narrowly humanistic in its outlook. The problem is that existentialists make man the “measure of all things” and thus see everything, including nature, in anthropomorphic terms. Even if Heidegger claims to focus on Being rather than human existence alone, he surely does not show much appreciation for natural science or animal life. In spite of Heidegger’s efforts to “let the world be,” his man-centered philosophy runs the risk of causing us to ignore and neglect our ecological situation.

5. Existentialism is pessimistic and even morbid. The existentialists seem only able to see the worst side of things: the dangers of technology, the insurmountable power of democracy, the exploitation of modern social systems. Sometimes this tendency leads to a nostalgia for “simpler” times and even creates a cult of the primitive. However, the whole picture is much more mixed. To a large extent, all the existentialists held their views as a counterbalance to some form of superficial optimism prevalent in their day.


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