Philosophymagazine

Philosophy and Science for the Third Millennium


A Short History of Existentialism

An Essay by Jean Wahl


Philosophymagazine

Søren Kierkegaard

Jaspers and Heidegger

Jean-Paul Sartre

Critique of Existentialism

 


 

My mother died today, or maybe it was yesterday.

—Albert Camus

  

Paradigm shifts are not unpredictable, just unthinkable.

—Peter Bernstein

 

The existentialist is first and foremost an individual who is in an infinite relationship with himself and his destiny.

—Søren Kierkegaard

 

Socrates said that no god seeks wisdom—for he is already wise.  Upon assuming behaviorism, doctors, judges, cops and educators effectively issued press releases declaring themselves gods.  As gods, they have no need for soul-searching to solve problems beyond their defined roles.  These self-anointed gods instead focus on projecting and enforcing their god-status.  What society is left with is a bunch of fragile, narrow-minded egomaniacs who are totally out of their depth when faced with true freedom and responsibility.

—Christopher Bek

Søren Kierkegaard

One day not long ago, as I was leaving a café in Paris, I passed a group of students, one of whom stepped up to me and said: “Sûrement, Monsieur est existentialiste!”  I denied that I was an existentialist. Why? I had not stopped to consider, but doubtless I felt that terms suffixed by ist usually conceal vague generalities.

The subject of existentialism, or philosophy of existence, has begun to receive as much attention in New York as in Paris. Sartre has written an article for Vogue; a friend informs me that Mademoiselle, a magazine for teenage young ladies, has featured an article on existentialist literature; and Marvin Farber has written in his periodical that Heidegger constitutes an international menace. The philosophy of existence has become, not only a European problem, but a world problem.

It is no less of a problem to define this philosophy satisfactorily. The word “existence,” in the philosophic connotation which it has today, was first used by Kierkegaard.  But may we call Kierkegaard an existentialist, or even a philosopher of existence? He had no desire to be a philosopher, and least of all, a philosopher with a fixed doctrine. In our own times, Heidegger has opposed what he terms “existentialism,” and Jaspers has asserted that “existentialism” is the death of the philosophy of existence! So that it seems only right to restrict our application of the term “existentialism” to those who willingly accept it, to those whom we might call The Philosophical School of Paris, ie. Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty. But we still have not found a definition of the term.

We face another difficulty in the paradox that the manner in which most of us speak of the philosophy of existence partakes of what Heidegger calls “the domain of the inauthentic.” We speak of the philosophy of existence; this is precisely what Heidegger, and Sartre as well, would like to avoid since we are concerned with questions which, strictly speaking, belong to solitary meditation and cannot be subjects of discourse. And yet we are gathered here today to discuss these questions.

To begin with, we must contrast the philosophy of existence to the classical conceptions of philosophy to be found in, say, Plato, Spinoza, and Hegel. For Plato, philosophy was the search for Essence, because Essence is immutable. Spinoza sought access to an eternal life which is beatitude. Generally speaking, the philosopher has wished to rise above the realm of Becoming and find a truth universal and eternal. He has generally operated—or so he believed—solely by reasoning. One might say that the last philosopher of this kind was Hegel, who carried farthest this effort to understand the world rationally. On the other hand, Hegel differed from the others by his insistence upon Becoming and the importance which he assigned to this notion. Already, in this sense, he had diverged from the tradition of Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, and many others. Nevertheless, Hegel believed in a universal reason. He tells us that our thoughts and feelings have meaning solely because each thought, each feeling, is bound to our personality, which itself has meaning only because it takes place in a history and a state, at a specific epoch in the evolution of the universal Idea. To understand anything that happens in our inner life we must go to the totality which is our self, thence to the larger totality which is the human species, and finally to the totality which is the absolute Idea. This is the conception which Kierkegaard, whom we may call the founder of the philosophy of existence, came forward to contradict.

Opposing the pursuit of objectivity and the passion for totality which he found in Hegel, Kierkegaard proposed the notion that truth lies in subjectivity; that true existence is achieved by intensity of feeling. To consider him merely as a part of a whole would be to negate him. “One might say,” he wrote, “that I am the moment of individuality, but I refuse to be a paragraph in a system.” To the objective thinker he opposes the subjective thinker, or, rather, what he calls the individual, the unique. By dint of knowledge, Kierkegaard says, we have forgotten what it is to exist. His principal enemy was the expositor of a system, ie. the professor.

The existent individual, as Kierkegaard defines him, is first of all he who is in an infinite relationship with himself and has an infinite interest in himself and his destiny. Secondly, the existent individual always feels himself to be in Becoming, with a task before him; and applying this idea to Christianity, Kierkegaard says: one is not a Christian—one becomes a Christian. It is a matter of sustained effort. Thirdly, the existent individual is impassioned, impassioned with a passionate thought; he is inspired; he is a kind of incarnation of the infinite in the finite. This passion which animates the existent (and this brings us to the fourth characteristic) is what Kierkegaard calls “the passion of freedom.”

The notions of choice and decision have an importance of the first order in the philosophy of Kierkegaard. Each decision is a risk, for the existent feels himself surrounded by and filled with uncertainty; nevertheless, he decides. Note that what we have just said concerning the existent’s mode of thinking and being discloses the object of his thought: the infinite; for with such infinite passion one can only desire the infinite. Thus, the how of the quest gives the goal; and, since we are in contact with this infinite, our decisions will always be decisions between the All and the Nothing, like those of Ibsen’s Brand. Under the influence of these passions and decisions, the existent will ceaselessly strive to simplify himself, to return to original and authentic experience.

But so far we have dwelt only on the subjectivistic aspect of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. For him, as for the other philosophers whom we will consider, there is no subjective without a certain rapport with a being. “The existence of a Christian is contact with Being,” he wrote in 1854 in his journal. The existent must always feel himself in the presence of God and reintegrate into Christian thought this notion of being in front of God. But to feel oneself before God is to feel oneself a sinner. Thus, it is by sin, and particularly by consciousness of sin, that one enters the religious life. But once in the religious sphere, one has still to progress, by a sort of spiritual voyage, from a religion which stays close to philosophy to the highest stage of religion. In the highest stage of religion, reason is scandalized, for we meet with the affirmation of the incarnation in the idea of the birth of the eternal being at a certain place and a certain moment in history.

The existent individual, then, will be he who has this intensity of feeling because he is in contact with something outside of himself. He will undergo a kind of crucifixion of the understanding. He will be essentially anxious, and infinitely interested in respect to his existence because an eternity of pains or an eternity of joys depend upon his relation with God. Thus, he will be in relation with what Kierkegaard calls “the absolute Other”: a God who, though protective, is absolutely heterogeneous to the individual; an infinite love which, no doubt, embraces us, but which we feel to be other than ourself because in our fundamental individuality and sinfulness we are opposed to it.

We have noted two ways by which Kierkegaard opposed Hegel: by the emphasis laid upon subjectivity, and by the importance assigned to intensity of individual feeling. We must add to these distinctions Kierkegaard’s insistence upon the idea of Possibility. For Hegel, the world is the necessary unfolding of the eternal Idea, and freedom is necessity understood. For Kierkegaard, on the contrary, there are real possibilities, and any philosophy which denies them is oppressive, suffocating. Moreover, the idea of Possibility is linked to the idea of Time, and we may contrast Kierkegaardian time, with all its ruptures and discontinuities, to the logical unwinding of Hegelian time, just as the subjective and passionate dialectic of Kierkegaard has been contrasted to the Hegelian dialectic.

Naturally, the ideas of Kierkegaard pose many problems. On the one hand, is there not a tendency in Kierkegaard to rationalize and explain the paradox by presenting it as the union of the finite and the infinite? And although he pur­ports to present us with a scandal to reason, does he not thereby diminish to some extent the element of scandal? On the other hand, Kierkegaard himself realized that the coming of Christ into the world did not constitute the supreme paradox, which would have been reached only if no one had perceived the coming of God. “I meditate on this question,” wrote Kierkegaard, “and my spirit loses its way.” Let us add that the paradox exists only for him who dwells below; for the blessed, that is to say, for those who see the truth, the paradox vanishes. In short, this entire construction exists only from an “earthbound” point of view. But perhaps this does not constitute a genuine objection. In a general way it is very difficult to determine whether such observations are objections or whether, by accentuating the paradox, they reinforce the Kierkegaardian conception. We could say the same in regard to questions brought out by the relations between Subjectivity and History (the intensity of the subjective feeling being paradoxically founded upon an objective historical fact), and by the relations between Eternity and History (for, if the moment of incarnation is an eternal moment, the paradox threatens to vanish).

Without a doubt we could trace the history of the philosophy of existence back to Schelling, a philosopher whom Kierkegaard knew, and to the battle waged by Schelling, near the end of his life, against Hegel. To Hegelianism Schelling opposed what he called his “positive philosophy” or his “affirmation of incomprehensible contingency.” We may even find in the writings of the young Hegel certain features which are not dissimilar to Kierkegaardian thought; but we must be wary of attributing too much historical importance to the youthful Hegel. Moreover, even the quasi-Kierkegaardian elements which did infiltrate into Hegel’s philosophy lost in transit their character of subjective protestation.

We could even trace the philosophy of existence back to Kant, who demonstrated that we cannot conclude existence from essence and thus opposed the ontological proof. Existence ceased to be perfection, and became position. In this sense, we may say that Kant begins a new period in philosophy. Or we may go back to Pascal and Saint Augustine, who replaced pure speculation with a kind of thinking closer to the person, the individual. It remains no less true, however, that we are able to recognize and understand these early prefigurations of the philosophy of existence only because a Kierkegaard existed.


Philosophymagazine

Søren Kierkegaard

Jaspers and Heidegger

Jean-Paul Sartre

Critique of Existentialism

 


 

In order that we may truly exist, rather than remain in the sphere of the things-seen and things-used, we must quit the inauthentic sphere of existence. Ordinarily, due to our own laziness and the pressure of society, we remain in an everyday world, where we are not really in contact with ourselves. This everyday world is what Heidegger calls the domain of the Everyman. In this domain of Everyman, we are not conscious of our existence. And an awareness of ourselves is only attainable by traversing certain experiences like that of anguish, which puts us in the presence of the background of Nothingness—from which Being erupts.

—Jean Wahl

 

Memory is the enemy of totalitarianism.

—Albert Camus

  

The modern conception of risk is rooted in the Hindu-Arabic numbering system that reached the West seven to eight hundred years ago.  But the serious study of risk began during the Renaissance, when people broke loose from the constraints of the past and subjected long held beliefs to open challenge.  This was a time when much of the world was to be discovered and its resources exploited.  It was a time of religious turmoil, nascent capitalism and a vigorous approach to science and the future.

—Peter Bernstein

  

To judge the extent to which today’s methods of dealing with risk are either a benefit or a threat, we must know the whole story, from its very beginnings.  We must know why people of past times did—or did not—try to tame risk, how they approached the task, what modes of thinking and language emerged from their experience and how their activities interacted with other events, large and small, to change the course of culture.  Such a perspective will bring us to a deeper understanding of where we stand, and where we may be heading.  Along the way we shall refer often to games of chance, which have applications that extend far beyond the spin of the roulette wheel.  Many of the most sophisticated ideas about managing risk and making decisions have developed from the analysis of the most childish of games.  One does not have to be a gambler or even an investor to recognize what gambling and investing reveal about risk.

—Peter Bernstein

Karl Jaspers and Martian Heidegger

The second major event in the history of the philosophy of existence occurred when two German philosophers, Jaspers and Heidegger, translated the reflections of Kierkegaard into more intellectual terms.

We may consider the philosophy of Jaspers as a sort of secularization and generalization of the philosophy of Kierkegaard. In the philosophy of Jaspers we are no longer referred to Jesus, but rather, to a background of our existence of which we may glimpse only scattered regions. Humanity has multiple activities, and each of us has multiple possibilities. But we develop one, we sacrifice another, and we never attain to that Absolute which Hegel prided himself on being able to reach through the unwinding of the Idea to its necessary conclusion. The absolute, in Jaspers’ philosophy, is “something hidden,” revealing itself in fugitive fragments, in scattered flashes like intermittent strokes of lightning. We have the sensation of a night into which our thought or non-thought plunges. Consequently, we are doomed to “shipwreck,” naufrage; our thought fails utterly, yet fulfills itself in this very disaster by sensing the background of Being from which everything springs.

We know that this background is something real; we derive our reality from it; yet we cannot construe it, and as existents we cannot even express ourselves completely. But in this awareness of defeat, which comes most vividly to us in situations in which we are strained to the utmost, we fully realize ourselves. Whether it be in human drama or in scientific discovery, we sense that there is something other than ourselves, something which exceeds us; and we assert ourselves in our existence by our relation with this transcendence. In this respect, we find in Kierkegaard and Jaspers the same connections between existence and transcendence. To this transcendence, no longer called Jesus (save in some recent writings), Jaspers has given the name Umgreifend or “All-enveloping,” the other-than-us which encompasses us.

Jaspers senses deeply those values which escape language, science, and objectivity; and the antithesis resident in our experience of transcendence. He also endeavors to complement the Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean intuitions with the profound feeling of human communication and human historicity. For him, we are not isolated, as Kierkegaard would have us isolated. Communication, a struggling love with other persons, is at the core of his system.

Communication has consistently been one of the major problems in the philosophies of existence. Indirect in Kierkegaard, direct and striving in Jaspers, divided into “authentic” and “inauthentic” in Heidegger (the authentic sphere being reserved, it seems, for poetic expression), clumsy and failing in Sartre, communication is always there—at least as a problem. Even in the absence of communication, the idea obstinately persists.

Now let us turn to Heidegger. His problem is the ancient problem of Being. He has declared that he is not a philosopher of existence, but a philosopher of Being, and that his eventual aim is ontological. Heidegger considers the problem of existence solely to introduce us to ontology, because the only form of Being with which we are truly in contact (according to Heidegger) is the being of man. To be sure, there are other forms of Being for Heidegger: there is what he calls “the being of things seen,” or scenes; there is the being of tools and instruments; there is the being of mathematical forms; there is the being of animals; but only man truly exists. Animals live, mathematical things subsist, implements remain at our disposal, and scenes manifest themselves; but none of these things exists.

In order that we may truly exist, rather than remain in the sphere of the things-seen and things-used, we must quit the inauthentic sphere of existence. Ordinarily, due to our own laziness and the pressure of society, we remain in an everyday world, where we are not really in contact with ourselves. This everyday world is what Heidegger calls the domain of the Everyman. In this domain of Everyman, we are not conscious of our existence. And an awareness of ourselves is only attainable by traversing certain experiences like that of anguish, which puts us in the presence of the background of Nothingness—from which Being erupts.

Kierkegaard insisted upon the experience of anguish, which he compared to dizziness, as a revelation of the possibilities which lie beyond. The Heideggerian anguish, however, does not lead to “mere possibilities,” which are partial and relative nonentities, but to Nothingness itself. Through anguish we sense this Nothingness, from which erupts everything that is, and into which everything threatens at every instant to crumble and collapse. This attempt to give reality to an absolute Nothingness (even were we to consider it mistaken) is one of Heidegger’s most interesting ventures.

Naturally, this Nothingness is difficult to characterize. We cannot even say that it is and Heidegger has invented a word, Nichten (“naughten”), to characterize its action. Nothingness “naughtens” itself and everything else. It is an active Nothingness which causes the world which erupts from it to tremble to the foundations. One might say that it is the negative foundation of Being, from which Being detaches itself by a sort of rupture. Let us remark parenthetically that in a postscript to the tract in which Heidegger discloses his theory of Nothingness, he tells us that this Nothingness, differing from each and every particular thing which is can be none other, at bottom, than Being itself-for, he argues, what is there different from each thing that is if not Being? Thus, we reach by a different route the identification which Hegel had effected between Being and Non-Being. And this might suggest many problems, eg. how can one say that it is solely through anguish that Being reveals itself, and that it is into Being that everything may collapse?

In any case, the experience of anguish reveals us to ourselves as out in the world, forlorn, without recourse or refuge. Why we are flung into the world, we do not know. This brings us to one of the fundamental assertions of the philosophy of existence: we are, without our finding any reason for our being; hence, we are existence without essence.

Obviously, we have abandoned any classical scheme, any hierarchy of realities at the top of which is God, the most perfect Being. Now we see only existents, flung for no reason upon the earth, and essences are merely constructions from existences. No doubt one may seek out essences of material things and implements, but there can be no essence of an existent individual, of man. Here we see most clearly the essence—if we may so speak—of the philosophy of existence, as contrasted to nearly all classical philosophy, from Plato to Hegel, in which existence always derives from essence.

The existence of man, this being, flung into the world, is essentially finite. Limited by death, his existence is a “being for death,” as the Kierkegaardian anguish was a “sickness unto death.” Although our existence is characterized by the fact that there are things possible to us, the moment will come when there will be no more possibilities, when there will be no more “ahead of us.” This is, of course, the moment of death, which Heidegger characterizes as the impossibility. It is this fact of our being in a finite and limited time which accounts for the tragic character of Anxiety.

Nevertheless, in this limited world we do accomplish a movement—or rather, movements—of transcendence; not towards God, because God does not exist (this is the principal teaching which Heidegger retains from Nietzsche), but towards the world, towards the future, and towards other people. Thus, the idea of transcendence loses its religious character and acquires, paradoxically enough, a sort of immanent character; it is a transcendence in im­manence. Let us note immediately, in reply to any possible objections from those who might insist that transcendence implies in common philosophical parlance a religious affirmation, that Heidegger observes the word “transcendence” ought to denote the end towards which we are going; properly speaking, to transcend is to rise towards. Thus, a being such as God could never be a transcendent being. Only man can transcend.

Let us examine more closely these various transcendences. First, there is transcendence (or, for those who still shy away from this term: “passing beyond”) towards the world. We are in-the-world, so to speak. We are naturally outside of ourselves: this is the signification, according to Heidegger, of the word “existence,” which suggests an egress. By way of signifying the same idea, Heidegger says that existence is naturally ecstatic, in the primitive meaning of this term. Curiously enough, few philosophers have insisted upon our essential participation or relationship with the world. At the outset of his Meditations, Descartes cast doubt upon the reality of the world. Kant questioned his idea of the world. Whereas, for Heidegger, we are always “open to the world.” In a brilliant passage in one of his lectures, Heidegger compared his theory to Leibniz’s monadology. The monads, said Leibniz, have neither doors nor windows, each monad being entirely self-enclosed. According to Heidegger, individuals are likewise doorless and windowless, but this is true not because individuals are isolated, but because they are outside, in direct relation with the world—in the street, so to speak. Individuals are not “at home,” because there are no homes for them.

Second, not only are we always and as a matter of course in natural relation with the world, but we are in immediate relation with other existents. And here, this theory which first presented itself as an individualism becomes an affirmation of our natural, even our metaphysical, relation with other individuals. Even in our most individual and private consciousness, even when we think we are most alone, we are not separated from others. “Without others,” says Heidegger, is another mode of “with others.”

Third, we go beyond ourselves towards the future. Each of us is always in front of himself. We are always planning, and we project ourselves into the plan. Man is a being who is constantly oriented towards his possibilities; the existent is a being who has to exist. In this connection, we may say that the time of existence begins with the future. In fact, what Heidegger calls das Verständnis or Comprehension, is always stretched towards the future. And thus it is that we are always filled with anxiety or care. We are always concerned with something which is yet to come; and Being, in so far as we seize it in existence, is care and temporality.

It is clear that these three transcending movements are not quite analogous to transcendence as conceived by Kierkegaard and Jaspers, since they are transcendences within the world and paradoxically immanent to it. We surpass ourselves, but always in the circle of the intramundane.

We have been at pains to examine three movements of transcendence which enter into Heidegger’s philosophy. Two more transcendences complete the list: transcendence of the existent from Nothingness (“on the substratum of Nothingness”), and transcendence from “particular things which are” towards Being (a transcendence to which we have already alluded). In summary, transcendence towards the world, towards other men, towards the future, towards Being, and transcendence out of Nothingness are the five uses of the idea of transcendence to be found in Heidegger. We may feel that in this multiplicity of meanings there are sources of ambiguity.

We have noticed that we are always ahead of ourself. On the other hand, like the One of the second hypothesis of Parmenides, “ we are always “younger” than ourself. Moreover, because we are flung into the world, we find ourself with such-and-such a determinateness and such­ and-such a constitution, in such-and-such a place and time. This means that we are not only our future; we are also our past. One might say that we have to find ourself—the expression “we have to” implying futurity, and the expression “ourself” implying both futurity and pastness. We have also noticed that our future is limited by the fact that at the terminus there is always death as the impossibility of possibility. Our future is again limited by the fact that our possibilities are not abstract ones, but rather, are embedded in specific conditions not chosen by the individual.

Thus, we move ceaselessly from our future to our past, from our anticipations and plans to our memories, regrets, and remorses. This fact of being constantly in touch with both the future and the past constitutes a third term in the vocabulary of Heidegger: the third ecstasy of Time. Being both before and behind ourself, we are in the same Time as ourself. Consequently, for Heidegger the third ecstasy of Time, or the Present, is in some sense the product of the juncture of our future and our past. We may fix upon this idea as the starting point of Heideggerian ethics, from which he conceives an act of “Resolute Decision” by which we take upon ourself our past, our future, and our present, and affirm our destiny. Here, for the second time we may note, in passing, the possibility of comparing the philosophy of Heidegger with the philosophy of Nietzsche. We may also compare it, as always, with the philosophy of Kierkegaard. We may perceive the influence of Kierkegaard on Heidegger’s theory of “Everyman”; on the notions of anguish, suffering, and sin; on the pre-eminence accorded to Future (a pre-eminence, to be sure, which also appears in the philosophy of Hegel); and even on the notion of a “resolute decision.”

It is important for a proper understanding of Heidegger that we do not consider these notions as a series of philosophical dogmas. According to Heidegger, man, unlike other beings, interrogates himself. In fact, man is that being who questions, endangers, and puts at stake his very existence. We noted that the philosophy of existence is essentially the affirmation that existence has no essence (thereby going further than merely stating that essence comes after existence). But we may add, as a second characteristic of the philosophy of existence, that one’s existence, because it is without essence, is the risk itself. Inasmuch as man is in-the-world, and is the being who is a philosopher in his own being, man endangers, when he questions himself, the world which he is developing, in some sense, around himself.

If we take the first Heideggerian definition of philosophy to be the endangering of Being by a being, the second definition, derived by Heidegger from his own etymological interpretation of the word “philosophy,” is “the wisdom of love” (not, as usually derived, “the love of wisdom”). If we understand by wisdom the communion of ourselves with things, philosophy becomes the acknowledgement of our selves as beings-in-the-world. Philosophy becomes knowledge of the existent, not only in so far as he is oriented towards his future, as Kierkegaard defined him, but also in so far as he is in ecstatic relation with the world. From this point of view, the philosophy of Heidegger is an expansion, and in a certain sense, a negation of Kierkegaardian individualism. We must recognize the injustice of reproaching this philosophy for immuring us in ourself; on the contrary, it declares that there is no subject-object dichotomy and that the classical conception of the Subject must be exploded to reveal us as always outside of ourself—this latter phrase, indeed, ceasing to have any meaning, since there is no “ourself” to be outside of.

In putting himself in danger, man endangers the whole universe which is bound to him. In every philosophical question, the totality of the world is implicated at the same time as the existence of the individual is self-endangered and cast into a supreme gamble. Thus, we see the ideas of individuality and totality, and we may even add, the ideas of individuality and generality, constantly reuniting. In fact, Heidegger speaks not merely for one particular individual; he speaks for every individual. He is describing human existence in general. Anguish is doubtless a particular experience, but through Anguish we arrive at the general conditions of existence, or what Heidegger calls “the Existentials.” In this respect the philosophy of Heidegger claims a further distinction from the philosophy of Kierkegaard, in that Kierkegaard always remains in the existential, whereas Heidegger attains Existentials, that is to say, the general characteristics of human existence. One may well ask if the notion of essence is not reinstated in the philosophy of Heidegger, and if Kierkegaard is not more consistent in his banishment of this notion. One may ask further if the search for Existentials and for Being is compatible with affirmations of existence.

Perhaps the most important question of all concerns the kind of ethical conclusions which may be drawn from these conceptions of Heidegger. Simply stated, we may say that, finding ourselves forlorn and abandoned in the world, we must shoulder our human condition and—as has already been intimated—assert our destiny. The existent is not to remain in the stage of anguish; or the stage of nausea, as it is described by Levinas and Sartre, two philosophers of existence whose reflections are linked in origin to the ideas of Heidegger. According to each of these philosophers, man can and must triumph over this experience. Man may take upon himself his own destiny, by what Heidegger calls “the Resolute Decision,” which is comparable to “Repetition” in Kierkegaard and to the active consent to eternal recurrence which culminates the philosophy of Nietzsche.

Heidegger has not completed his philosophy. Being and Time (Sein und Zeit) is the name of his great work and, in fact, one sees that for Heidegger the very nature of Being is constituted of temporality, and that he strives to bring Space itself into one of his moments of Time—ie. the Present—thereby assenting, to a certain extent, to the Bergsonian theory of Space and Time. Nevertheless, one cannot say that his ontology is complete. One may even raise the question of why it is incomplete, and whether there may not be an irreducible duality between existence and the search for Being. The only way to Being is through existence. Can one found an ontology upon this existence? Such, it seems, is the Heideggerian problem.

Since the publication of Being and Time, Heidegger has attempted, in certain tracts, to erect a kind of philosophy more myth-like than mystic, in which he enjoins us to a communion with the earth and the world, invoking to this end the thought of Holderlin and Rilke. On the other hand, he has made a painstaking study of the idea of Truth; but there too, it seems, he is confronted with antinomies and wavers between a fundamental realism and an idealism of freedom not unlike that of Fichte.

Recalling his distinction between different forms of being, one may well ask if the being of the implement, and even the being of the scene, does not imply the human being. This question brings to the foreground the whole problem of idealism in Heidegger. No doubt, he would like to pass beyond the antinomy of idealism-realism. Nevertheless, it seems (save in certain passages of particular profundity) that he is forced to be now a realist, now an idealist, and that he does not succeed in passing beyond the domain in which these two doctrines stand in opposition, despite all his desire to do so. One might say that one of the attractions of his philosophy derives in good part from the fact that he carries far each of two great tendencies of the human spirit: the realistic tendency to insist upon things as almost impervious to the mind; the idealistic tendency, so recurrent in German philosophy, to locate everything in the mind. Thus, Heidegger will say on the one hand that truth consists in “letting things go,” that truth is in things, and is a property of things, not of judgments; on the other hand, that the source of truth lies in our freedom. And at times it seems that this freedom, in turn, should be defined as the capacity to surrender to things. In the latter case, the realistic element triumphs. But the problem remains, essentially unresolved.

We can see that the philosophy of Heidegger contains a certain number of heterogeneous elements. The notion of the experience of anguish, and marked Kierkegaardian influences, lead to a definition of human existence as anxious, bent over itself, making plans. On the other hand, the Heideggerian individual is in-the-world, an idea which is foreign to Kierkegaard and may have come in part from Husserl. And we must not forget the meta physic or ontology, and the importance assigned to the notion of Being. It is the fusion of Kierkegaardian elements, affirmations of being-in-the-world, and ontology which gives to the philosophy of Heidegger its particular tonality.

Before embarking on a critical exploration of the philosophy of Heidegger, we may notice that the first two elements in this fusion are linked. Existence is anxious, not only because it is drawn towards the future, but because it is in the world; and “the being-in-the-world” assumes the form of forlornness because experience is pervaded and gripped by anxiety. We sense in this philosophy both a tendency towards an extreme individuality and a tendency towards a deeply-felt totality.

This sketch of the philosophy of Heidegger leads to some further considerations. Taken as a whole, does not this doctrine imply a Weltanschauung which is negated by the doctrine itself? There is no place for God, it seems, in the philosophy of Heidegger; and yet, when he depicts us as forlorn, and even guilty, is there not—at least, in these expressions—an echo of the religious ideas among which he grew up and the religious influences which accompanied the early developments of his thought and philosophy? We might venture to say that some of the essential notions in his philosophy arise from a certain level of thought which he believed he had passed beyond. Could it be that if Heidegger were completely free of his religious presuppositions, he would cease to be Heidegger? Midway between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, he is in the world of Nietzsche with the feelings of Kierkegaard and in the world of Kierkegaard with the feelings of Nietzsche.

In the second place, could we not conceive of a philosophy of existence linked, not solely to experiences of separation, forlornness, and profound melancholy, but also to feelings of hope and confidence? This objection to Heidegger has often been voiced by Gabriel Marcel. The Heideggerian doubtless would reply that, existence being finite and ourselves being destined for death, there is no cause for such hope and confidence. But does the thought of death reveal more of the existence and condition of Man than the thought of life? Certain passages in Sartre’s L’Être et le Néant (Being and Nothingness) challenge Heidegger on this very point and tend to minimize the idea of death which is of first importance in the philosophy of Heidegger.

In the third place, we may question whether certain ideas have been adequately defined; in particular, the ideas of Being and Possibility. The idea of Possibility, though used by Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Heidegger, is nowhere made precise, except perhaps in the work of Sartre. And the attempt to throw some light—a dim enough light, as it happens—upon the idea of Nothingness is, in the last analysis, more intriguing than satisfying.

Lastly, our assessment brings us to Heidegger’s moral conclusions. The “resolute decision,” by which we take upon ourselves our destiny, constitutes a sort of act of faith, understandable in Nietzsche as a pure act of the creative will of values, but less clearly substantiated in Heidegger. Moreover, this “resolute decision” remains extremely formal. How does one proceed from theory to practice? Heidegger himself has applied it differently at different times, doubtless according to the lessons he believed to be furnished by experience; but we cannot set aside the fact that at the time of the formation and initial triumphs of Nazism, his “resolute decision” was to follow the lead of the Nazi chiefs. This may not have been—contrary to his belief at the time and to the belief of his adversaries to this day—an absolutely logical consequence of his philosophy. But we may conclude from this evidence that the ethics of Heidegger remains purely formal, admits of several interpretations, and finally, is not an ethics at all.


Philosophymagazine

Søren Kierkegaard

Jaspers and Heidegger

Jean-Paul Sartre

Critique of Existentialism

 


 

When I choose I choose for all men.

—Jean-Paul Sartre

 
Any man who sets up a determinism is a dishonest man.

—Jean-Paul Sartre

 

Those who hide their complete freedom from themselves out of a spirit of seriousness or by means of deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards.

—Jean-Paul Sartre

 

There can be no other truth to take off from this—I think, therefore I exist—ie. the Cartesian cogito. There we have the absolute truth of consciousness becoming aware of itself. Every theory which takes man out of the moment in which he becomes aware of himself is, at its very beginning, a theory which confounds the truth, for outside the Cartesian cogito, all views are only probable, and a doctrine of probability which is not bound to a truth dissolves into thin air. In order to describe the probable, you must have a firm hold on the true. Therefore, before there can be any truth whatsoever, there must be an absolute truth; and this one is easily arrived at; it is on everyone's doorstep; it is a matter of grasping it directly.

—Jean-Paul Sartre

 

Jean-Paul Sartre

We come now to the third stage in this brief history of the philosophy of existence. Several young and able French philosophers have found in the ideas of Heidegger something fresh and significant which answers to their own feeling of anguish. There was already in France—particularly in the philosophy of Gabriel Marcel—something which could be compared to the philosophy of Jaspers and Heidegger. Furthermore, the influence of Heidegger was directly felt in France before the war—though, to be sure, in a small circle of thinkers.

The philosophy of Sartre, although containing much that is original with him, is linked in part to the philosophy of Heidegger and in part to that of Husserl. The latter leads him into a kind of idealism which may not be completely consonant with the elements which he may have derived from Heidegger. In common with Heidegger, Sartre has “the ontological concern,” the need to study the idea of Being, and also an emphasis on the idea of Nothingness, though for Sartre this latter idea is often rendered in a sense more Hegelian than Heideggerian. Sartre characterizes Being as having two forms: “in-itself” (l’en-soi), which is always identical with itself and corresponds to what is extended for Descartes; and “for- itself” (le pour-soi), which corresponds to Thought construed in Hegelian fashion as a constant movement.

Which is primary, the “in-itself” or the “for-itself”? This is one of the most difficult of all problems to resolve in the philosophy of Sartre. When he says that the “in-itself” is primary, he classifies himself as a realist; when he empha­sizes the “for-itself,” he classifies himself as an idealist. The “for-itself” appears to be a Nothingness, or more precisely, a nullification; following a comparison drawn by Gabriel Marcel, we might say that the “for-itself” is a kind of trou d’air or vent in the “in-itself.” This conception is not dissimilar to Bergson’s conception of consciousness as being primarily selection.

Inasmuch as these two forms of being are absolutely opposed to each other in all their characteristics, one is tempted to ask if it is proper to call both of them Being. If ontology is the science of a unique being, can there be any ontology in this ontological theory?

In the second place, one may question if there actually is something in reality which can be the “in-itself” as defined by Sartre; that is to say, something purely and uniquely itself. On this point the Hegelian theory, in which the Absolute is the development of the implicit “for-itself” towards an explicit “for-itself” seems far more satisfactory. No doubt, Sartre’s affirmation of the “in-itself” responds to an epistemological concern on his part, and answered the need to affirm a reality independent of thought; but has one the right to pass from this assertion to the notion that this reality is what it is, and is uniquely so—is, in fact, something massive and stable?

On a good many points, as we have said, Sartre is an idealist. But by his insistence upon the intentionality of consciousness, by his definition of Knowledge as a “not­being,” by his conception of a massive “in-itself” to which consciousness opposes itself as a Nothingness, by his affirmation of radical contingency, and by his insistence on the failure inherent in love-relationships, he seems to summarize the frequently justifiable grounds for the modern world’s animadversions to idealism.

Perhaps the duality of Sartre’s philosophy is one of its intrinsic characteristics, and not to be disprized. A search for justification and the impossibility of justification are recurrent motifs in the philosophy of Sartre. His philosophy is one of the incarnations of problematism and of the ambiguity of contemporary thought (for Man does seem, to the contemporary mind, to be ambiguous).

This is not to say that an effort by Sartre to dispel ambiguity is either inadvisable or improbable. There is the Sartre of Nausea and the Sartre of The Flies. There is the Sartre of Morts Sans Sépultures, which reflects divergent and contrary aspects of Sartre. There may yet be a Sartre who will go beyond ambiguity.

A few summary remarks are suggested by this brief survey of the philosophers of existence. Kierkegaard is not at all interested in ontology, and in this respect he is more existential than Heidegger or Sartre. Thus, in the history of the philosophy of existence, one goes from a consideration of existence proper to a study of Being with the help of the idea of existence. The latter method is that of Heidegger and Sartre. Nevertheless, Sartre and Heidegger differ considerably, and Sartre is closer than Heidegger to Kierkegaard. For example, Sartre criticizes the pre-eminence which Heidegger assigns to the ontological over the ontic.

We might mention, without discussing, Simone de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, whose theories are similar to those of Sartre, though sometimes applied in different domains of experience. We must omit discussion of those who, like Bataille and Camus, are often classed as existentialists, but who would refuse to accept the appellation.

Let us construct a few rules-of-thumb for distinguishing between existentialists and non-existentialists. If we say: “Man is in this world, a world limited by death and experienced in anguish; is aware of himself as essentially anxious; is burdened by his solitude within the horizon of his temporality”; then we recognize the accents of Heideggerian philosophy. If we say: “Man, by opposition to the ‘in-itself’ is the ‘for-itself,’ is never at rest, and strives in vain towards a union of the ‘in-itself’ and the ‘for-itself”‘; then we are speaking in the manner of Sartrian existentialism. If we say: “I am a thinking thing,” as Descartes said; or, “The real things are Ideas,” as Plato said; or, “The Ego accompanies all our representations,” as Kant said; then we are moving in a sphere which is no longer that of the philosophy of existence.


Philosophymagazine

Søren Kierkegaard

Jaspers and Heidegger

Jean-Paul Sartre

Critique of Existentialism

 


 

It is clear that one of the consequences of the existential movement is that we have to destroy the majority of the ideas of so-called philosophical commonsense.

—Jean Wahl

 

The only true philosophical question is that of suicide.

—Albert Camus

  

When one has no character, one has to apply a method.

—Albert Camus

  

Empirical psychoanalysis and existential psychoanalysis both search within an existing situation for a fundamental attitude which cannot be expressed by simple, logical definitions because it is prior to all logic, and which requires reconstruction according to the laws of specific syntheses. Empirical psychoanalysis seeks to determine the complex, the very name of which indicates the polyvalence of all the meanings which are referred back to it. Existential psychoanalysis seeks to determine the original choice.

—Jean-Paul Sartre

Critique of Existentialism

The philosophy of existence reminds us, once more, of what all great philosophy has tried to teach us: that there are views of reality which cannot be completely reduced to scientific formulations. Naturally, those who are of the contrary opinion will still try to explain the philosophy of existence scientifically; for example, by economic or historical reasons. Such explanations often have some validity, but they are never completely satisfactory.

Thanks to existentialism, to be or not to be has again become the question. And this reminds us that there have been many existentialists—or, as Kierkegaard would say, many existents. We have just intimated that Hamlet was an existent. We could say the same of Pascal; of Lequier, the philosopher from whom Sartre has borrowed the dictum: “Faire, et en faisant, se faire;” of Carlyle; and of William James. We could say the same of Socrates’ great enemy, Nietzsche. We could show that the origins of most great philosophies, like those of Plato, Descartes, and Kant, are to be found in existential reflections.

There is, however, a question which may trouble the mind, and even the existence, of the existentialist. Does he not risk destroying the very existence which he wishes above all to preserve? Jaspers rejected the term “existentialist.” Kierkegaard did not wish to construct a philosophy; one may go even further, for not only would Kierkegaard have refused the name’ “existentialist,” not only would he have rejected the term “philosopher of existence,” but doubtless in his Christian humility he would have refused the name “existent.” Is it for the existent to say that he exists? In short, is it, perhaps, necessary to choose between existentialism and existence? Such is the dilemma of existentialism.

At any rate, it is clear that one of the consequences of the existentialist movement and the philosophies of existence is that we have to destroy the majority of the ideas of so-called “philosophical commonsense,” and of what has often been called “the eternal philosophy.” In particular, we have to destroy the ideas of Essence and Substance. Philosophy—so goes the new affirmation—must cease to be philosophy of essence and must become philosophy of existence. We are observing a whole philosophical movement which dislodges previous philosophical concepts, and which tends to make more acute our subjective understanding at the same time as it makes us feel more strongly than ever our union with the world. In this sense, we are witnessing and participating in the beginning of a new mode of philosophizing.

We see that the negations advanced by the philosophers of existence imply some affirmations; in Heidegger, for example, the affirmation of our unity with the world. Doubtless we have also noticed, in reviewing rapidly the various philosophies of existence, that we find ourselves time and again before impasses. In Heidegger, for example, we do not know if his system is an idealism or a realism; if the Nothingness is Nothingness or Being. There is a similar impasse in Sartre, and on certain points a return, perhaps even a recoil, from the conceptions of Heidegger towards those of Hegel and Husserl. But these impasses need not turn us back. The permanence of the dogmatisms under whose banners the philosophy of existence is attacked are themselves reasons for reaffirming the importance and the leading role of the philosophy of existence. All great philosophies have encountered such impasses, but thought has gone ahead and somehow found a solution. Perhaps, in order to facilitate an egress from these difficulties, it will be necessary to distinguish more and more carefully among the different elements which we have enumerated, eg. the insistence upon existence, and the insistence upon being-in­the-world. No doubt there are different levels and elements in reality; but it is only by distinguishing the various problems, levels, and elements in these philosophies of existence, and assessing their relative importance, that we will be able to gain an insight into their difficulties and possibly pass beyond them.


 

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Last Updated28 August 2003.