Thursday 17 July 2014

Existentialism and choice


Colin Wilson c1956 - England's home-grown beatnik existentialist

The era of Existentialism, in the years following the 1939-45 World War, was the last time that atheists did any serious thinking about the human condition. Since then things have slipped back into shallowness, sloganeering, and sophomoric sniping.


My interest in existentialism goes back to a TV interview in the Men of Ideas series, in which presenter Bryan Magee spoke to the expert William Barrett - who authored Irrational Man. Or perhaps this was preceded by my finding the work of Colin Wilson - especially The Outsider.

 I grabbed onto existentialism exactly because it was 1. atheist; and 2. serious - tackling the most profound issues of life. In fact, I never much cared for any of the canonical existentialists except Nietzsche - I was (and still am) unable to get anything out of Kierkegaard), was bored and repelled by Sartre (who seemed dishonest), very interested by Heidegger but unable to plough through the turgid tedium of his prose (although I read dozens of books about him) - but nonetheless, I probably saw myself as an existentialist of some kind - gleaning bits and pieces here and there from novels, plays, poems, pictures...


The existentialist attitude to Christianity is hostile or bored. Nietzsche regards Christianity oxymoronically; as a powerful-powerlessness, a cancer of the will, puny yet able to bring-down civilizations and individuals - but this complex vision fell into two opposite, alternating assertions:

Christianity was merely the fairy-tale, wishful thinking of feeble-minded people who avoided confronting existential reality by escaping into daydreams;

and/or Christianity was a tyrannical, oppressive force of social authority and control, that crushed freedom and happiness.


But the 1950s existentialists seemed mostly to be bored by Christianity, and the assumption was that (perhaps for world historical reasons) it just didn't work anymore; therefore something new and stronger was needed.

But the existentialists were honest enough to perceive that in eliminating God, they had eliminated objectivity - and that therefore LIFE boiled down to a subjective choice - which was not regarded as The Truth, was therefore not binding on anyone else, and could not serve as a socially cohesive force.

What was the choice between?


The human condition falls into the good bits - happiness, insight, fulfilment, a sense of meaning and purpose...

And the bad bits where it is miserable, boring, painful, meaningless and pointless. The question was - which was real and which was the illusion?

Most existentialists chose to believe that the bad bits were underlying reality, and the good bits were temporary illusions; Colin Wilson chose to believe the opposite - which was why I found him a valuable author.

But the fact was that it was all down to choice, individual choice, subjective choice, contingent choice, impermanent choice: the whole weight of existence hinged upon this choice...

So, in the end, existentialism does tend towards despair - since sooner or later even the most pride-crazed mind (I am thinking of Nietzsche) becomes filled with terror at supporting the whole weight of existence by a mere act of impermanent, fragile choice - a choice which must be sustained at all times, through thick and thin, sickness and heath, youth and age, good times and bad...



Nicholas Fulford said...

It tends towards despair because it puts the sisyphean burden of total choice and responsibility upon the individual. By discounting the epiphenomenal nature of "self" and creating a projection of the self as free in fact, it creates an absurd and false dilemma.

We may act as though free, but as is being demonstrated via science, freedom is not possible in fact, but it is a socially useful idea - a not factually supported one.

Existentialism nevertheless has some utility, but not as a dogma or as an ultimately liberating philosophy. It has utility in helping the individual to obtain some dissociation from oppressive forms, and opens the mind to ideas that are novel and stimulating - even if factually absurd. It is like the Magic Theatre in Steppenwolf. And in that is the absurdity, the lightness, the great guffaw in the fabric of being. It makes light of itself, implying, "it is important that you make light of this philosophy so that it does not become dogma." In a sense then it is self-negating even while emphasising the singular importance of responsibility and freedom. The elbow in the ribs is there, but somehow it gets missed.

I remember seeing an excellent production of Dostoevsky's "The Double", which is many ways an absurdist-existentialist play - well before the term was coined as a philosophy. Perhaps he could be termed a proto-existentialist, and some call him a Christian-existentialist - which given "The Brothers Karamazov" is probably apt.

The problem is that existentialism is deconstructivist and offers only negation when one follows it all the way to the end. Negation can liberate from illusion but then offers the horror of an empty mirror - the void. It hence invites despair and meaninglessness for most who look that deeply into the abyss.

There is a need to step to the edge and then back a few steps because taking it all the way is a form of suicide. Hence existentialism is a transitional philosophy, but transitional to what? It provides some humour, insight and creative impetus, but only if it is not taken so seriously that suicidal existential despair is the end. And I think that is what Hesse is on about with his Magic Theatre - for madmen only.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - The difficulty with this kind of discussion that we are having, is that we are treating philosophy as if it were a form of psychotherapy; and this is almost inevitable once there are no grounds for truth.

However, "We may act as though free, but as is being demonstrated via science, freedom is not possible in fact, but it is a socially useful idea - a not factually supported one."

- Come, come; that statement is obviously incoherent! - because science presupposes freedom. If we are not free, and everything that happens is merely a consequence of what led up to it; then there can be no judgment, or decision, or choice; then science has no validity, and nor does this conversation, and neither does anything else!

The very concept of a fact depends on freedom - therefore facts formally cannot disprove freedom.

daniel said...

Existentialism is said to have come historically from Protestant Christianity. I remember being offered in secondary school an image of the agonized Puritan/pre-destinationist, neurotically obsessed at every moment with he is truly Saved or not. I don't know how historically accurate this picture is, as I haven't read enough sources and have become suspicious of much of what I've been taught, but if there is truth in it, it bears a very close resemblance to the 20th century existentialist.
It may be that certain strains of Christianity go astray by overemphasizing either pre-destination or free will, or perhaps don't get the relation between these concepts right. Modern existentialism may be a post-Christian 'hiccup' of this derailment (heresy?) in Christianity.