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Existentialism edited by Robert C. Solomon

John Shand enjoys a collection of essays about existentialism.

This is aneclectic collection of extracts, as befits the decision of the editor, Robert C. Solomon, not to define ‘existentialism’ tightly. Existentialism is undoubtedly tricky to define, but Solomon must have had something in mind when he put together this collection other than just following what people habitually call ‘existentialism’. At any rate, it includes those philosophical giants most associated with existentialism – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty – as well as slightly less famous philosophers similarly implicated – de Unamuno, Marcel, de Beauvoir, Hazel Barnes, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Keiji Nishitani, Colin Wilson, Viktor Frankl – and finally those whose existentialist credentials are embedded in more literary genres – Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Rilke, Kafka, Camus, Márquez, Beckett, Borges, Pinter, Heller, Roth, Miller.

Going where angels, and even Solomon, fear to tread, I shall take a stab at defining existentialism. The core of existentialism is a recognition of inescapable personal responsibility. It involves the realisation that the human individual is irredeemably free and responsible for choosing his outlook on the world, for his conduct in it, for essentially who or what he is, and that no appeal to external authorities such as God, or to rational philosophical systems, or to a predetermined ‘self’, or to the norms that surround us, or to science, can remove this and do the job for us if we wish to live as fully authentic human beings and not as ‘things’ enslaved by the world. The force of existential choice comes charging home to us when we feel alienated from the mass of norms by which most people around us govern their lives, but which to the enlightened existentialist are ‘absurd’ and ungrounded. Solomon is right: this view of existentialism leads not to a body of doctrine, but to a pervasive way of thinking about the human condition, a comportment to the world, fired by integrity.

Most of the above writers are well known, so I’m going to focus on one in the collection who deserves far greater attention than he usually gets. For among the most welcome additions to the second edition of this book is an extract from Colin Wilson’s substantial essay ‘Anti-Sartre’. This is written with all the engaging clarity that one would expect, and facilitated by illuminating analogies. Colin Wilson has been unjustly neglected by academia, in the case of philosophy almost totally so. This may be because he has worked outside the university system almost all his life, and therefore attracts an irredeemable suspicion of not really being ‘sound’. One does not have to agree with every turn in his writings in general to believe that his specifically philosophical work is in fact of significant value. The core of his philosophical ideas is contained in ‘The Outsider’ series of books, headed up by the first in the set, titled The Outsider. These ideas are condensed in his The New Existentialism and further explored in Below the Iceberg, in the latter of which the full text of ‘Anti-Sartre’ appears.

Wilson’s criticism of Sartre echoes Nietzsche’s charge that what are presented by philosophers as universally valid conclusions based on cool reasoning may often be “…an audacious generalization of very narrow, very personal, very human, all too human facts.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Preface). Even if we regard this as an exaggeration, it is a reminder of the way in which non-rational factors may be the dominant process leading someone to a belief and others to accepting it, a process made dangerous when what is really doing the work is hidden behind a façade of poor reasoning that we are assured is its true origin. According to Wilson, nothing could be truer of Sartre. What seems to be a complex, thought-out position in fact manifests the drive of personal psychology that was going to take him to that result anyway – and, moreover, to a position concerning the human condition that is false. Of course, it is not false because it is a result of personal psychology – but we may have trouble seeing that it is false and unjustified because to some the conclusions are strangely attractive. Wilson accuses Sartre of pessimism. Sartre, in particular in his novel Nausea, supposedly presents a world stripped of illusion; a world revealed as it would be if devoid of the ordering categories of metaphysics and values. What we are left with is nothing or, at most, ineffable overwhelming existence. The giddiness of being cut free from the only thing we know, a life lived entirely by categories that we suddenly realise are utterly arbitrary, induces in us retching nausea; an anxious despair in which we ask, “Why am I here doing this?”, while realising that no answer appears ultimately justified, and that we have no-one but ourselves to help us answer it. We carry on, of course, but we do so in ‘Bad Faith’, tricking ourselves into giving significance to what we do, while uneasily aware that our life amounts to no more than the result of happenchance. If we cap this off with an awareness of the immovable horizon of death towards which we are all doomed to progress without redemption, then the seriousness with which we regard our lives seems indefensibly absurd.

This absurdity has been the excuse for much dark humour among those capable of this sort of existentialist outlook. Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, as anyone with any sensitivity knows, is one of the funniest plays you can see in a theatre. To return to Sartre, when the good existentialist strips away the contingent accretions that order his world, he should be left with the world raw, true, and as it is in itself. Sartre thinks this is reality, and that it is a depressing place, devoid of meaning or, ultimately, even sense. However, Wilson argues that Sartre’s ‘reality’ is in fact the projection of his own subjective view, which it so happens is pessimistic. This is plausible; when devoid of the constraints of the commonality of publicly ratified categories, we are left not with nothing, but with our subjective outlook. There is a masochistic tendency in many to suppose that the worse must somehow be truer; that inevitably a grim view of reality is what we get when disabused, free from fairytales that comfort us and satisfy our desires, that quell fears so deep and terrifying that we are hardly able to admit them to ourselves. Of course let some people, poor dears, live with their illusions if they can make such beliefs work for them, but let’s not kid ourselves. Conversely, maybe it is all right to kid ourselves, as from the disillusioned point of view, if nothing matters, it doesn’t matter how you get through your life either. (One might argue that existentialism is here hanging illegitimately onto a vestige of an external absolute moral precept, along the lines that it is honest and good to face the truth.) But why should we assume that a true view would reveal a terrible prospect?

Raising this seemingly simple question is perhaps the most significant contribution to philosophy Wilson has made. The correct order of priority in the reasoning has become seductively reversed: you know you’ve found the truth if your view of reality is rotten. The alternative is not a matter of having a cheery disposition. What Wilson brings out is the way in which, because of the psychological faults to which we are all prone, we are unable to reason half as clearly about the nature of reality as we think we are. In Sartre’s case, a grand sweeping metaphysics is built on the peculiarities of his own psychology. Wilson’s claim is that our subjectivity, far from being the dependable provider of a true view of reality, takes us over in a way that we don’t easily recognise, and stands as a barrier to seeing reality as it is. Wilson’s challenge is: why should we be so prone to think that a view of the world in which things lack value is the true one? That is to say, a view in which our lives appear futile and ridiculous, a world from which we feel fundamentally alienated. The short answer is because it’s easy. To live life with value and purpose is hard work. Of course, we all get our glimpses of such a life: when we wake on a spring morning, refreshed after a good night’s sleep, and our dark four-in-the-morning worries evaporate. Now it is those anxieties that seem ridiculous, absurd, and morbid. We look upon the face of a child who has been born to us, and the world is lit up. We may experience this listening to music, or during sex, or on a cliff walk. Yet, after a little while, habit and boredom take over again, and we for some reason think the uplifting epiphanal view was an illusion, and now we’re back to reality.

But why? Why that way around? Habit and laziness are the answer. We passively accept the view of the world that our subjectivity ‘gives’ to us. But this is a mistake; we don’t have to be passive; we can do things to our consciousness awareness. The fog of subjectivity descends on us: we become obsessed with our own trivial affairs, and can’t see beyond the end of our noses. We see reality better when subjectivity gets out of the way or at least intensifies. There is nothing mystical or wishy-washy about this. We completely lose sight of what reality is truly like – until the next time we hear that, say, contrary to what we believed, our daughter has not been run over by a bus. In times like this our passive subjectivity is swept away, and the world seems suffused with meaning. Wilson’s quest has been to learn how to sustain such yea-saying states – as it was Nietzsche’s. He’s written much on this, and it comes down to a sort of mental discipline, not giving in, not taking the easy way, not succumbing to being smothered by the weak and watery view of the world that we usually experience as our subjective concerns obscure objective reality. Rather one must learn to focus the mind. You may not agree. I’m not sure I do myself, but you ought at least to think about it and look over your shoulder at how you came to have the view of reality you do. Is it reality you’re truly seeing, or is it reality as seen by you?

© Dr John Shand 2005

John Shand is an Associate Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University and an author. He is Editor of the five volume Central Works of Philosophy published by Acumen.

Existentialism edited by Robert C. Solomon (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition 2005).pb £13.99 379pp. ISBN 0195174631.

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