Saturday, 4 March 2023

Understanding the existentialist response to reality

One sticks a finger into the ground to smell what country one is in; I stick my finger into the world — it has no smell. 

Where am I? What does it mean to say: the world? What is the meaning of that word? Who tricked me into this whole thing and leaves me standing here? 

Who am I? How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought from a peddling shanghaier of human beings? 

How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? 

 And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager - I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint? 

After all, life is a debate - may I ask that my observations be considered? If one has to take life as it is, would it not be best to find out how things go?

From Repetition by Soren Kierkegaard, 1843


The above quotation is an early example of the existentialist response to Life - the sense that we find ourselves in life, without any understanding of its purpose or meaning - the unanswered question of what Life has to do with Me

The world seems divided into those (like me) who have experienced this response to Life - at first, usually in adolescence; and those who haven't and don't. 

(Those who experience life in this way are what Colin Wilson called Outsiders.)

The basic observation is that Men in ancient and medieval times did not experience life in this way; but that in the modern Romantic era (perhaps beginning in the late 1700s, or perhaps somewhat earlier) more-and-more Men began to experience life this way. 

Owen Barfield's idea of the development (or evolution) of human consciousness can explain this change on the basis that Men used to get their understanding of meaning and purpose from outside: their thinking was 'permeable'.

But since the modern era, and in accordance with to divine intentions that Men become more free; Man's consciousness has become (more and more) cut-off from spontaneous external knowledge of 'the human condition'.  

Men once lived in a kind of communal 'telepathy' with other men and with gods and spirits; such that a basic understanding of meaning and purpose was spontaneously 'given' - there was disagreement on the exact nature of meaning and purpose... 

Men knew 'naturally' that there was a meaning-purpose - and that Life had something directly to do with Me. 

Existentialism was then not an issue.

But now, human existence is A Problem. 

'Outsiders' recognize that there is a problem: feel it in themselves. 

Those who do Not recognize the existential problem nonetheless still suffer from cut-off-ness, and therefore (but implicitly) regard life as meaningless and pointless - as can be seen from modern Man's behaviour. 

But the un-conscious suffer without knowing why or how; and while often denying that there is any problem at all...  

The 'answer' to the existential problem comes from understanding that ancient Men were correct in regarding life as having purpose and meaning, and being relevant to every individual.

Modern Men have merely become cut-off-from that knowledge of Life - but the knowledge is still true, and is still there, awaiting discovery. 

Thus modern Man's job is to become conscious of that which was un-conscious; actively to choose to know that which ancient Men passively had forced-upon-them, by their environment. 



Inquisitor Benedictus said...

Blake says no matter how much Science you acquire, it will never teach you Intellect. What Steiner calls 'clairvoyance,' Blake calls the 'Poetic Genius.' Kierkegaard had awesome Poetic Genius, but he constantly staggered at it and contradicted himself: "Two Horn'd Reasoning, Cloven Fiction, / In Doubt, which is Self contradiction." (Blake)

I think those whom Colin Wilson calls 'Outsiders', are people who have sufficient clairvoyance / Poetic Genius to allow themselves to see the 'Other Side' – and therefore enough to see themselves as being Outsiders from it – but insufficient faith to carry them over there completely. Thus, the 'angst'.

I've often thought that the existentialists were more poets than philosophers, and that the existential approach to life is poetic:

"But to accept it in faith, that he cannot do, or rather in the last resort he will not, or here is where the self ends in obscurity. But like that poet’s description of love, so this poet’s description of the religious possesses an enchantment, a lyrical flight, such as no married man’s description has, nor that of his Reverence. What he says is not untrue, by no means, his representation reflects his happier, his better ego. With respect to the religious he is an unhappy lover, that is, he is not in a strict sense a believer, he has only the first prerequisite of faith, and with that an ardent longing for the religious." (Kierkegaard;
I believe in the footnote to one version of this I read, the editor says Kierkegaard was describing himself in this passage, which I think is likely correct.)

I think what the existentialists do is live in a constant state of flirting with the Transcendent while never attaining any permanent unity with it, forever flitting back and forth between doubt and belief. The Romantics basically all lived this contradiction too (except perhaps for Blake himself who seems to stand apart from and above the whole movement), but they wilfully covered up their deficiency for the sake of their Art, whereas the existentialists take pride in exposing themselves as much as possible, and try to capitalise on their confusion intellectually and perhaps artistically. When they take an aesthetic pleasure in their doubting it tends to culminate in a kind of tragical atheism (Sartre) or spirited blasphemy (Nietzsche). But unlike the secularists who are absolutely possessed with Science, these existentialists at least have enough Intellect to see that all their Science is confusion and loss without deeper support.

I think that 'clairvoyance' or 'Poetic Genius' is directly accessible to everyone. I think Steiner & Blake are pulling the wool over our eyes when they pretend it's the special preserve of Initiated Occultists or Romantic Prodigies, though I guess that device is to warn us against treating it lightly or carelessly (which leads to superstitions and cults of so many kinds).

Bruce Charlton said...

@IB - I agree with your analysis - 20th century existentialism is mostly a half-way house; partly right, but (usually) stuck in atheism.

And when E. is religious, mostly failing to justify this in a coherent way. At least, that is how Kierkegaard strikes me (I find K near impossible to read/ understand directly, but have read a fair bit *about* him.)

The idea behind the above post is that the Barfield scheme for the history of consciousness makes sense of existentialism and provides a coherent way forward.

20th century existentialists tended to believe that people in the past were wrong, brainwashed or in some way defective - and were living a delusion; and the 20th century existentialists had 'seen though' these delusions to reveal emptiness beneath.

Whereas a more Barfieldian idea would be that it is the cut-off modern Man who is more free, but as a result loses spontaneous understanding. He is mistaken when he regards cut-offness as 'evidence' for a meaningless world. What he needs to do is - from his freedom - to choose to know that which ancient Men knew spontaneously.

This is also a recognition that all knowledge is 'cognitive' - the only possible knowledge is known by somebody (some being) - and it is the knowing mind that makes possible the understanding of purpose and meaning. Objectivity always and necessarily includes the subjective.

The task is to use this modern free subjectivity to choose to believe that which is *real* (i.e. harmonious with divine creation) - instead of what most modern people actually *do*, which is believe the incoherent, unreal, dishonest nonsense of mainstream ideology/ public discourse, which has has been designed purposively to harm, demotivate and damn them.

Inquisitor Benedictus said...

@Bruce Charlton, indeed, the existentialists do imagine themselves as 'seeing through' the superstitions of former times . . . What I think they are actually 'seeing through' is the false application of Science to religious questions, to questions of 'existence', and the false equivalence drawn between religious *symbols* (creeds, dogmas, rites, iiturgies, etc.) and supersensible realities, an equivelance which the medievals naively drew (because still impregnated with clairvoyant vision), but which modern scientific analysis has 'disenchanted'.

Traditionalists, on the other hand, keep on insisting that the religious symbols of their tradition hold absolute value and are objectively the means of accessing higher reality – which helps them avoid the existential angst, but at the cost of putting them at the dubious position of having to come up with some kind of scientific defence of their religion (modern apologetics).

To address your quote from Kierkegaard's 'Repetition' – essentially, "why am I here and why haven't I been told?" – I was thinking about this recently: how are we ever to find out our place in the world, both in general (as human beings) and individually (our personal vocations)? What method can ever generate certain knowledge of such? There isn't one... until you reject the basic assumption that "we don't know" in the first place... – what if, in fact, we *do know* why we are here and what for, and that we only habitually choose to hide from this self-knowledge because we take a certain pleasure in our ignorance and self-deception (sin)? The idea that we "do know" I think squares with deeper human experience: the tendency of people to have "hunches" or "epiphanies" or "revelations" or such at key moments in their lives which sets them on course, or back on course, to where they "always knew" they were meant to be, etc., etc. There's Plato's idea that true knowledge is remembrance of what we (in the Soul) already know, and there are people (e.g. in the Near-Death Experience community) whho speak of their lives having being 'planned' or fore-ordained in some way before they were born, and even of their having personally co-operated in this life-planning before their conception on earth. This knowledge, I believe, is accessible by clairvoyance, Poetic Genius, participation, intutition – whatever you want to call it. In fact, it's an Open Book if you have the purity of heart to wish to read it.

Kierkegaard himself had a moment such as this when he realised he had to break off his engagement with Regine Olsen in order to pursue a literary career, which he thought was his divine calling – but it seems he at least half-doubted himself about this for the rest of his life, and felt the need to stave off guilt for having potentially toyed with Olsen's affections...

Bruce Charlton said...

@IB - Yes, I agree. But for this to happen requires (among other things)

1. Metaphysical understanding/ explanation of *why* intuition (etc) is a valid (THE valid) form of knowing.

Otherwise the knowledge you speak of, comes across as bare assertions; assertions that contradict what we think we know about valid knowledge.

Our mistakes of assumption lie very deep, and distort everything above their level, at the level of both everyday and specialized reasoning. This is why metaphysical awareness of our basic assumptions has become an all-but-essential pre-requisite for positive change among Christians, and more broadly.

2. An understanding that intuition or 'clairvoyance' is no longer about achieving altered/ impaired states of lower consciousness (where insights passively flood-into the mind); but about an active, higher and clearer, more powerful forms of thinking. We need to stop supposing that reality is what forces itself upon us from outside, and recognizing that we must actively participate in knowing reality - each must discern and choose reality from among a mass of errors and lies.

And the 'form' of this thinking is more about right motives honestly pursued; rather than a result of expertise in special 'meditative' techniques/ methods/ training/ initiation (which were just an intermediate phase; characteristic of the agrarian period of consciousness between hunter gatherers and our industrial world - and which essentially ended for us with the middle ages).

Python said...

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

Yeah, existentialism is clearly a modern issue...

Bruce Charlton said...

@P - Well. there is more to existentialism than pessimism. But the real issue about the development of Man's consciousness is metaphysical - it can neither be proved nor disproved by evidence.