Exploring Existentialism Part One


Existentialism is a somewhat nebulous movement in continental 20th-century philosophy, which has its roots in the 19th century. Arguably the two most prominent precursors to existentialism were Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  Those who are familiar with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche may find it strange that two apparently juxtaposed figures as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, should both be precursors to the same intellectual movement. Nietzsche is in a sense a self styled antichrist who believed that he was the end of Western philosophy and the final death blow to theology and to theism. Whereas Kierkegaard presents himself as the ultimate Christian, willing to sacrifice all reason, all of logic, and the entire Greek tradition to Christianity.  So this begs the question, what could these intellectual figures possibly have in common? How is it that these two are seen as precursors for existentialism? Well upon a closer examination, there's a certain similarity between the two. First of all and foremost, they celebrate themselves as individuals. They place emphasis upon their own individual choices and judgements: they don't ask anyone's permission. They make their decisions and are willing to make their commitments independently their community, of other people's opinions, and of the previously received canons of rationality.

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard

This is a salient characteristic as both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have become immortalized in the name of moral heroism, or in the case of Nietzsche, perhaps immoral heroism, promethean figures whose heroism transcends all personal costs and contingencies. This is arguably one of the most distinguishing elements in 20th century existentialism. 

What Nietzsche and Kierkegard emphasize is the idea that the individual must confront a world that is essentially chaotic and make choices that are essentially without criteria. The fact that we must agonise our way through an obscure and unclear human condition, that we must make choices of the utmost gravity without any good rational foundation, is the agony of the human condition. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, those two titans of contemporary individualism, who both share the credit for forcing us to start thinking about the agony of individual choice, the heroism that's required to stand outside of received wisdom, even to stand outside of reason itself. In the 20th century, there are a number of borrowings from the tendencies of these two figures rather than their actual writings. In existentialism, we see this transference of tendencies via a group of German and French thinkers in their endeavour to vocalize the crisis of human beings in the 20th century who as a group of people or as a culture on the whole no longer takes religion seriously.

Mourning the Death Traditional Mythos

We, in some respects, have outgrown mythological accounts of the world, and yet we still need to do some of the things that religion and myth used to facilitate. We need to make judgments about right and wrong. We need to make decisions about how to live our lives, and we need to find some way of being really human in an age that seems set against us. 

Discovering an effective individuality, to be something other than a cipher and a social security number. In other words, existentialism is a philosophical movement loosely organized with no particular set of dogmas, except that individuals must confront their predicament without any palliative, anything that prevents you from confronting the pain and the anguish of making decisions that have no good grounds. 

Martin Heidegger's Response

Probably the most important 20th century existentialist philosopher is Martin Heidegger. Those of you that have read Heidegger before, will probably find him as baffling as I did when they first experienced him. However this bafflement not the puzzlement that we find when we read say the likes of Wittgenstein such as the Tractatus, where one must move through the text with precise attention to grasp an expression of though resembling a coherent mathematical order.  No. The puzzlement that we experience upon encountering Heidegger is in the language that he uses, in the terms that he coins, and most especially in the questions he asks.  What's most intriguing about Martin Heidegger is not so much the answers that he gets, rather it is in all the intriguing questions that Heidegger presents, and that's probably his most important contribution. 

The Sisyphean Task

Now, Heidegger says that we have to deal with Dasein, and you will spend an endless amount of time chasing your tail, trying to figure out what Dasein is, because Martin Heidegger is never going to tell you. He's beyond definition. He's taken the opposite extreme from the tendency that we see in Anglo-American philosophy towards increasing precision. Rather he is going for increasing global comprehensiveness. He's going to try and articulate the things that Wittgenstein and the logical positivists said can't be articulated or even thought about. Dasein for Heidegger, probably cannot really be defined as such but for the sake of this article, the best I can do is this: Dasein is the mode of human existence in the world. What I mean by the world is not the world of space and time, not the world of the positivists, but the human world, the world of judgments, of commitments, of connections, the social world of human life, rather than the world, strictly speaking, of space and time, were talking about the subjective human world as we find it without any intellectual or analytical pretenses overlaid upon it. 

Upon further reflection, I think Heidegger’s Dasein may be what Wittgenstein was pointing at near the end of his career when he talked about language as being connected to forms of life, different forms of life taken together would form Dasein, which is the way it is to exist as a human being in a world of meanings as opposed to a world of objects. 

Heidegger’s primary objective is to figure out what Dasein is. In other words, figure out what it means to be a human being and his methodology will orbit around the formulation of very big questions. It is in this regard that he's the heir to the German and continental philosophical tradition aiming for global coverage and a certain willingness to risk logical precision in order to get a complete and comprehensive treatment of the human condition. 

The difficulty that Heidegger says that we must all encounter, is that simply by being human, we are compelled to ask fundamental questions: what is being? What is it to be a human being? We are compelled to apprehend quandaries and questions which we know in the depths of our psyche cannot be adequately answered, and yet to answer them squarely and unequivocally.

What it Means to 'Be in The World'

Our being in the world is described as an anguished, thrown state, of becoming that we find ourselves in.  We are impelled to ask questions that we can't answer and forced to deal with the fact that there is no eluding these questions except through inauthenticity, except through a denial of what it means to be human. We're forever on the edge of realizing what we want to be, we’re forever looking at a shimmer of meaning over the horizon, which we can never fully grasp, and yet we cannot avoid this search, endless pursuit. 

This is the human condition, according to Heidegger. That's what's involved in Dasein, when you fundamentally confront what it means to be a human being. The connection to Kierkegaard should be readily apparent in all of this.  Consider the emphasis on not getting in the end of our search for meaning any satisfactory rational answers.  In Kierkegaard's case, it causes him to disregard traditional reason, to get rid of it as a fetter to the pursuit of answering these ultimate questions.  Heidegger, however, says he's not going to go towards a religious pseudo resolution to the problem. He's going to maintain intellectual respectability by dealing with the fact and confronting the fact and writing a book. This seems to be the point of fulguration, a creative tension at the heart of both of these thinkers and other thinkers; producing a wide variety of existential literature all attempting to grapple with the fact that we must ask the big questions and we have only little answers.

Heidegger leads us to a borderless amorphous apprehension of being, a kind of limbo which he takes as being contiguous with being an authentic human being, and we begin to fully experience this state once we become fully conscious. Heidegger also tells us that we must confront ‘thrownness’.  ‘Thrownness’ at least for Heidegger is the feeling of being just thrown out into a world that we neither create nor comprehend, and that we must deal with it as is, regardless of your feelings and judgements. 

There are consequences for facing an incomprehensible world that has no moral structure, no ontological structure, no logical structure, in fact, no structure at all, simply one experience after another. The consequence of all this, he calls Zorga, which in German means fear or worry or care. In other words, Heidegger says that the universal human condition or the universal human emotion when we see ourselves for what we really are is dread.  

Closing The Intellectual Circle - Kierkegaard

Now, this is taken directly from Kierkegaard’s concept of dread, the dreadful circumstances that we find ourselves in, the worries that attend being really human and really being a conscious agent all come together to tell us that what we are is uncertain. What the world is is even less certain. The best we can do is get by, and perhaps make it up as we go along, yet there are better and worse ways of managing this uncertainty, while all of them involve no guarantees, no final stops.

Closing Thoughts

One could almost say that this is a philosophy which makes a virtue of uncertainty, which not only never gets to any final conclusions, but in fact says that that's the idea. Heidegger says that philosophy is always underway in the process of becoming. In other words, philosophy is always on its way towards somewhere, much like undertaking a trip without a final destination. Now, imagine that rather being the problem, that this perpetual process of being ‘underway’ is the solution. 

I personally enjoy to an extent this view; however, not everyone shares my sentiments.  For some it is seen as a rather perverse take on philosophy. Others may take this as a view suited to broken-hearted idealists: when we can no longer take metaphysics and the second world of the Platonic forms seriously, when positivists are winning the day, the would-be idealist, like Heidegger, holds back and decides, no, the world is a lot more complicated, the world is a lot more uncertain, the world is a lot more trying than any positivist could ever imagine. It is upon this sentiment that typical themes in existentialism largely ignore scientific questions. The typical question for an existentialist is fear, worry, anxiety, psychological states that Wittgenstein, or at least the early Wittgenstein, and other positivistic thinkers cannot and do not ask.

In our next post we will continue with Heidegger and carry on from this response to Positivism and the death of traditional metaphysics in so far as it characterizes the formative elements of existentialist thought.

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