The existential theat to existentialism

Sam Smith – As a real existentialist, I am repeatedly befuddled and also a bit annoyed when public figures such as journalists use, as they do increasingly, the term “existential” as an adjective presumably meant to mean, “listen up, this is real serious” – as in “ISIS presents an existential threat to our way of life.”

Just for the record, the existential has been more correctly defined as “a philosophical attitude associated especially with Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, and Sartre, and opposed to rationalism and empiricism, that stresses the individual’s unique position as a self-determining agent responsible for the authenticity of his or her choices.” Or, as it has been put, the belief that no one can take your shower for you.

That has nothing to do with ISIS or other “existential threats.”

Sam Smith, Why Bother –  The history of existentialism is murky and confusing, for those lumped in the category have agreed on neither religion nor politics. But for the purposes of getting a life rather than obtaining tenure, Jean Paul Sartre’s definition works pretty well. Sartre believed that existence precedes essence. We are what we do. This is the obverse of predestination and original sin with their presumption of an innate essence. Said Sartre, “Values rise from our actions as partridges do from the grass beneath our feet.”

In fact, some existentialists argue that we are not fully us until we die because until that moment we are still making decisions and taking actions that define ourselves. Even the condemned person, one said, has a choice of how to approach the gallows.

Wrote Sartre: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism . . . Man is condemned to be free. . . From the moment he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.”

Sartre, while the father of modern existentialism, was not the first existentialist. For example, there was the theologian Kierkegaard, as conscious of God as Sartre was of Marx. According to Kierkegaard, writes Donald Palmer,

We can never be certain that we have chosen “the right values.” This means, among other things, that there is no such thing as existence without risk, and that existence at its very core must be experienced as anguish and dread by every sensitive soul.

To show just how murky existentialism  can be, one of the most famous existentialist writers, Albert Camus, even denied he was one, telling one interviewer:

No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. We have even thought of publishing a short statement in which the undersigned declare that they have nothing in common with each other and refuse to be held responsible for the debts they might respectively incur. . . .

Perhaps this antipathy stemmed in part from the fact that Camus was a novelist rather than a philosopher like Sartre, and perhaps because they disagreed on politics, but whatever you want to call it, few have spoken as wisely on behalf of the uncertain human spirit. “There is no love of life without despair of life,” said Camus. “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”

These are not the precise and pedagogical words of a philosophy rising, yet, as with art and love, there is no particular reasons why life should be hostage to logical words, among the least fluid of human expressions. Robert Frost, asked to explain a poem, replied that if he could have said it better he would have written it differently. Louis Armstrong, asked for a definition of jazz, replied that if you have to ask, you’ll never know. And, said Gertrude Stein, there ain’t no answer. There never was an answer, there ain’t going to be an answer. That’s the answer.

In a world dominated by dichotomies, debate, definition and deconstruction, existentialism suggests not a result but a way, not a solution but an approach, not goal but a far and misty horizon. It is, says Robert Solomon, “a sensibility …. an attitude towards oneself, an attitude towards one’s world, an attitude towards one’s behavior.” ..

This sense of being individually responsible yet part of a seamless web of others produces neither certainty nor excuses. One can, one must, be responsible without the comfort of being sure. Camus once admitted that he would be unwilling to die for his beliefs. He was asked why. “What if I’m wrong?”  And when he spoke of rebellion he also spoke of moderation:
There does exist for man, therefore, a way of acting and thinking which is possible on the level of moderation which he belongs. Every undertaking that is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory. The absolute is not attained nor, above all, created through history . . .  Finally, it is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests. … The words that reverberate for us at the confines of this long adventure of rebellion are not formulas of optimism, for which we have no possible use in the extremities of our unhappiness, but words of courage and intelligence which, on the shores of the eternal seas, even have the qualities of virtue.

Camus thus avoids the pedagogue’s death by definition, preferring attitude and values rather than direction.

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