Sartre, Kierkegaard, Husserl and Heidegger: Existentialism
Phenomenology and Existentialism:
“Existence precedes essence” – Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness.
Existentialism is the philosophy of human existence that relates to one’s pursuit of the meaning of life. Although existentialism is generally considered to have originated with Kierkegaard, the first prominent existentialist philosopher to adopt the term as a self-description was Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre popularized the term in his book L’existentialisme est un humanism (Existentialism is a Humanism, 1946).
Existentialism is a broad movement like Romanticism. Some view Existentialism as a revival of Romanticism: → A reaction against the reaction (in Hegelian terms “the negation of the negation”) of the primacy of analytic philosophy in the second half of the 19th Century (e.g. Frege’s Logicism; Liberal and Utilitarian Pragmatism, Weber’s sociology, “Scientific” psychology, Marx’s Historicism (although not his Hegelianism, etc).
There is a return to the romantic preoccupation with subjectivity, the validity of first person experience, the mysteriousness of being as “a thing in itself”; the problem of inferring consciousness to others, ontology and the “reason for being”.
The movement can be dated to roughly to Nietzsche and “God is Dead” (The Joyful Science). The “first existentialist” is normally said to be Kirkegaard, who was at first a libertine and then became Christian puritan protestant, obsessed with fear of death and fixated on the idea that bad moral actions on his part would lead to strong subjective feelings of guilt, regret and shame which would torture him for all eternity.
He wrote a famous review of Don Giovani, saying the opera encapsulated everything of value in western civilization.
Western civilisation is “faustian” – the abandonment of self, “selling of the soul” in return for physical pleasure (as in Don Giovani) or knowledge (empiricism, logic, science).The answer to this Kierkegaard thought was “a leap of faith” and a commitment to Protestantism, so he could be “bathed in the blood of Christ” and thus rescued from an eternity of torture-by-regret by this individual commitment. For Kierkegaard the fact that modern science had refuted everything about Christianity (e.g. Heliocentrism) just made Christianity all the more valid, as though the very unbelievability of Christianity was the greatest proof of its essential truth.
Within the Existentialist movement it is common to describe Kirkegaard as a “nihilist”. At the same time his book The Sickness Unto Death (about the angst of the Freudian “id”) and the self-deception of the “ego” in the fact of the facticity of death and anonymity of death is admired. In the book, the true “sickness unto death,” does not describe physical but spiritual death and it is this that is something to fear according to Anti-Climacus.
Key themes in Existentialism:
The rejection of Descartes: “I think therefore I am” becomes “I am therefore I think” which reduces to “I think” which reduces to “there are thoughts”. This would be the real “certain truth” you get if you use the method Descartes set out in the Methodology. Descartes asked the “right question” (what does it mean to exist, i.e. the ontological question) but he reached the wrong conclusion.
This journey of departure from Descartes’ metaphysics begins with Kant and his Critique of Pure Reason: “existence is not a predicate [‘result’ or ‘conclusion’ or ‘end’ or ‘purpose’] of consciousness (or ‘being’) (as Descartes and Plato thought). Rather, existence is a pre-condition of consciousness. But consciousness is not a proof of existence anyway (contrast to Descartes). Consciousness “just is” it is not the result of anything, or the cause of anything in particular.
How does consciousness arise? The ontological question. But ask yourself: how could there not be consciousness? What is the opposite of consciousness – unconsciousness, a mind without properties.
You can not stand outside consciousness. Descartes and dualism is comprehensively trounced, though in “Cartesians Meditations” Heidegger says that Descartes asked the right questions, and explained mind in terms of ontology rather than psychology.
All you can do is examine the ‘texture’ of consciousness which, when viewed as a subject and not an object because fascinating. This is what Heidegger takes from Husserl.
Furthermore consciousness is not individual. There is no “I” as in “I think therefore I am” – the transcendent Cartesian ego, can not be found anywhere. Freud looked for it and tried to reach it as a psychological “centre point” in the ego, but failed; finding instead that ego (subjective sense of self) is in Hegelian terms merely a metaphorical dialectical synthesis of the conflict between unconscious somatic drives (“id” – or even Nietzsche’s Will to Power or Schopenhauer’s Survival Instinct) and other people (society, or the “superego”). There is no ‘ghost in the machine’ or personal soul. The sense of being is in one sense an illusion; but at the same time it is the only reality any actual living being has.
Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations was published in two volumes in 1900 and 1901. Thanks to J. N. Findlay’s English translation of the book in 1970, there was a shift in Husserl’s interests from mathematics to logic and epistemology which helped to create the idea of phenomenology (structures of experience and consciousness).
This brought the wake of the Fregean revolution:
- Logic can not be deduced from psychology, it is not empirical in any way at all. Psychology is not a valid enterprise (though neurology may be) there is no “self” to be analysed, mental “events” are ontological and psychological.
- Logic is a function of language; not of mind. Language exists independently of the mind, like a virus. Logic is a matter of linguistic definition, analytic like Frege.
- The true starting point of philosophy is subjective, first person knowledge “phenomena”. This is contra Frege and Russell, who strive first for a valid set of logical definitions (eg of zero or ‘nothing’). Husserl says this is not possible.. He is thus in the continental/German tradition from Kant.
- Unlike Kant, Husserl asserts that dreams, abstract concepts are also phenomena, of equal epistemic value; there is no division between ‘thoughts’ and ‘ideas’. This is one of the most famous refutations of Descartes and idealism. To Descartes provocation that all perception may well be a dream, Husserl says “so what?”. A purely subjective world functions just as well as an objective. He thus demolishes Platonic radical skepticism by defining it as essentially a non-problem or a malformed question. That I perceive is “really there” or “just in my mind” matters not one jot to Husserl. The result is the same.
- Intentionality: there are many possible phenomena that can arise from sense stimulation (e.g. duck-rabbit). The proper subject matter of philosophy is how/why the mind chooses to see one thing and not another (Screen Daniel Dennett on “significance blindness”).
- Consciousness is therefore a structure of choosing. Intentionality is something similar to will to power (Nietzsche) or animal spirits (Keynes) or even “id” (Freud) – necessity creates a structure where there is more interest in one thing than an other (more “presence of mind” – Heidegger) and this structure is very subtle, and hanging together moment by moment to create a coherent pattern of reality. The constant creating and recreating of a consciousness structure is subject existence as a thing in itself, it is “being” (Heidegger) and not “becoming” (Hegel).
- Consciousness structure is similar to Kant’s “transcendental unity of perception” – each idea supports another idea in “the web of belief” (Quine).
- Phenomenology is the study as concepts as present in the mind of a person; therefore if you think of a unicorn then this is the phenomena of “unicorn” regardless of whether or not there is a mind-independent object which is a unicorn. The ‘facticity’ of the unicorn (roughly its ‘dead’ or fixed qualia) is not related to the phenomena of a unicorn.
- When I look at a table the ‘intentionality’ of my thought (roughly ‘directedness’) is the same whether or not the table is there, or whether I am hallucinating. It is a real and existing table. On the other hand an “unintentional object” which has fixed “dead” qualia (a gigantic planet in orbit around a distant star for example) has no existence; because it is not the object of intention. This is not a new idea in philosophy: “To exist is to be perceived” – Berkeley. It follows that existence for a human is not in your own hands, but in the hands of others; a person is “determined” by the way in which others perceive them; thus fictional characters in films and TV can be seen as “more real” than the actors who play these people; thus forever Christopher Reeves “was” Superman, etc. This goes to the idea of “glamour” – which is the cult of being seen and being admired (Tom Wolfe: Bonfire of the Vanties). This goes to the morality of existentialism, which attempts to leave people “undetermined”. In politics it leads to feminism (Simone De Beauvoir: The Second Sex) and to anti-racism – (Franz Fanon – “Black faces, White Masks”) and sexual politics, “identity politics”, (Jenet Genet, etc.) The act of perceiving can be an act of oppression, e.g. “sexism” and the feminist critique of art (“the objectifying male gaze”) etc. The best example of this is Sartre’s dark play “No Exit”: “Hell is other people”.
- The “phenomenological reduction” allows a person to “bracket” the world examine only the phenomena as it is “presented to the mind” (Husserl) or “present to hand” (Heidegger). It is not necessary to have the “whole picture” before gaining real and complete knowledge of actual phenomena (this is a rejection of Hegel). The knowledge we have of actual phenomena, to which we have directed our attention (i.e. objects having intentionality) is valid knowledge; Hegel’s “absolute” can be “bracketed” to be replaced with a suspension of judgement was to the actual existence of any larger picture at all.
- The essence of Husserl’s phenomenology is the study of immediate “data (items) of consciousness” each one in isolation without reference to context or pre-supposition. It is an attempt to “experience” each moment as it really is, rather than what it “means” in relation to a broader system of belief. This is an explicit rejection of Hegel’s “phenomenology of mind”.
- For Husserl there it makes no difference whether the ideas I am having represent the “real” world; or whether they are fiction, or hallucinations. It makes no difference to my actual life whether or not the table in front of me is really there; or is an hallucination; and when I lean on it whether it is “really” supporting my weight; or whether this is another congruent hallucination as part of a Cartesian dream-world.
German philosopher Martin Heidegger published his book Being and Time (“Sein und Zeit”) in 1927. The book is dedicated to Edmund Husserl “in friendship and admiration“.
Hiedegger proclaims the end of the metaphysical age, from Plato to Husserl, though the change began in the 1790s with Kant and the French Revolution.
In the metaphysical age, objects exist independently of mind, they ‘subsist’ and the role of the mind is to understand the structure of reality as a kind of mirror (Tarkovsky). The ‘mission’ of philosophy (and poetry, music, science, theology, cinema) was to:
(a) establish the ‘reality’ of the existence of the ego as an object within an external world or to discover that this is impossible (art – ‘ways of perceiving’); and
(b) to describe the nature of this reality (science – ways of knowing).
The primary idea therefore in the metaphysical age is to make thoughts correspond with an underlaying or hidden substrata of independently subsisting reality (such as Descartes’s ‘God’ or Schopenhauer’s ‘Will’). Thoughts which correspond with reality are “truth statements” – even subjective aesthetic intuitions (e.g. Keats, Beethoven, Schopenhauer, Romanticism, etc. – “truth is beauty; beauty is truth” – Keats).
Truth is the agreement of knowledge with objects. Objects are eternal and prior to mind (Aristotle) or can be mind dependent (Hume, Kant) but they exist either way according to the metaphysicians. Kant’s project was not the rejection of metaphysics, but its re-foundation on the basis of active mind by the use of the noumena and phenomena, (as previously discussed on HCJ ad nauseum). Husserl and Heidegger dispense with the noumena and keep the phenomena, hence “phenomenology”.
After Heidegger there is no absolute or highest truth (reformulation of ontology as subjective being). There are only subjective “weak truths” and “practical truths” or “convenient truths” which are necessary to being, and being is always concrete and specific for Heidegger, always “being in the world” or “being there” (Dasein) and these are always relative to the point of view of the perceiver and either entirely ungrounded (eg second hand reports of phenomena given by others) or grounded in subjectivity, even in “mood” or “emotion” (contrary to logical positivism, where truth is grounded in verifiable facts [“so-called” facts].
Truth is thus no longer a matter of matching thought to reality; but of making reality which is seen as true post-hoc. There is no idea of a “correct truth” to which one teacher or one culture has access. There are many truths, specific to the desires and moods of each individual, limited by the superego of cultural traditions and norms. Mood (emotional state) is not a trivial matter for Heidegger, but the concrete aspect of being. Sartre, following Heidegger, attempts to create a theory of the emotions as ontological an not psychological phenomena. Feelings of guilt and shame – alienation (hegel); inauthenticity (Heidegger); bad faith (Sartre) are of particular importance, as the most vivid and persistent of emotions. Joy is a negative emotion in existentialism – it is merely the momentary absence of guilt or shame. This is similar to Schopenhauer’s definition of pleasure as the temporary absence of pain, and nothing else – Schopenhauer and Neitzsche’s systems are completely compatible with existentialism if one sees guilt as the psychological/ontological equivalent of physical agony.. It follows that the morality of existentialism involves the disavowal of guilt. Heidegger for example never expressed guilt about the Third Reich or his enthusaiastic Nazi’ism. Existentialism means never having to say you are sorry so long as whatever it is seemed like a genuinely good thing at the time.
To clear away all philosophical terminology and throw away all philosophical concepts and systems since Socrates. To liberate himself from constraints of “objectification” and metaphysics (he did not much care what others did). Thus to live “an authentic life” – in practical terms to live a simple life in the forest. As a Nazi he had a Rousseau-Esque loathing of industrial civilisation, of cities and sought a life of isolation in the countryside (The whole Nazi “Good Life” bag of tricks German romanticism – mountain-worship, Wagner, fertile women, Lederhosen, eurythmics, Strength through Joy, physical strength, organic food, Heimat, paganism, new age-ism, astrology, vegetarianism, etc,
Like Nietzsche, Heidegger believes Socrates corrupted western civilisation. Socrates-Plato-Aristotle is all a detour, a corruption and the invention of philosophical systems founded on the basic error of postulating a-priori an eternal world of objects existing in abstract extended Cartesian space-time.
To do this he revives interest in the pre-socratic philosophers, especially Heraclitus. Part of the attraction is that these writers did not describe themselves as philosophers (Plato’s term), and wrote in plain, non-technical language in the manner of a journalist. The project, seeing thought as a circumscribed epiphenomena of the intentional use of language, is reminiscent of George Orwell and also the later Wittgenstein.
Heidegger invented an original set of terms in order to speculate about the exterior world.
Dasein “being there”:
Like Husserl, Heidegger is not interested in any sort of “consciousness” which presupposes a-priori the existence of “things” from which it arises in the process of the contemplation of those things. Instead Heidegger is interested in “being”, in ontology, not psychology. The “problem of being” is his subject.
Being is not abstract for Heidegger, but always concrete – “being’ at a particular time and place, and being engaged in a particular task (even just the task of thinking). We always are in the middle of some job or other, some task. Freedom and authenticity for Heidegger is complete absorption in a task, such absorption does not mitigate existential pain (the function of music for Schopenhauer) but actually makes existence go away. When you are fully engaged in a task, you no longer exist.
Existence boredom. Boredom is “the problem of being”. Existence (which is the same thing as boredom) requires time. Without time there would be no boredom. With infinite time there would be infinite boredom. The perception of “lack of time” creates a sense of urgency, and forces a choice of Dasein – with limited time one must do one thing rather than another.
Dasein is non-reflective, unthinking, instinctive – for example on a rollercoaster ride – it is all sensation and engagement in the moment. Reflection would create vertigo and paralysis; too much “thinking about the world” instead of “being in the world” or “being there”.
Dasein is not thinking, but “caring”.
A vocabulary for intellectual activity – anti ‘thinking’, about doing and being, not analysis.
Judgements, choices, decisions and formulation of concepts, are ways of “caring” and “coping”.
From the start of life we are already engaged in an activity; this is “throwness” against “facticity” or “randomness” – random assemblage of facts, as examined by phenomenology.
Part One: Being and Time → Desein:
“Time is the boundary for the problem of being”. Time is an element of being; time is like “the boundary of being”. It is not a thing in itself. Kant discovered the problem of non-linear time, and Einstein codified the mutability of time as ‘space-time’. So “space-time is the horizon/boundary of being”.
The Preparatory Analysis of Desein:
We find Dasein in “caring” which means work. The example of the carpenter and the hammer “transparent being”. The “ready to hand”. The difference between the hammer and the carpenter is that the hammer has “being for”. It is not free. Humans who act as “being for” (something or somebody else) are unfree, alienated and live in “bad faith”.
More on time and the subjective experience of time. There are three aspects to time, this Heidegger shares from Kant and the mutability of time obviously references Einstein’s relativity, and modernity generally:
(1) ‘Attunement’ expressed as ‘mood’. Reflection on the past produces “mood”. Outside of Dasein the normal mode of attunement (mood) is a vague ‘angst’ and, the mood of guilt.
(2) ‘Being for itself’ or ‘Being there’ – ‘caring about the task in hand’ (slag ‘in the zone’ you are ‘doing your thing’ as in improvised jazz). This is the present mode of Dasein.
(3) Directedness – this reflection on the future. This produces the ‘mood’ of “dread”. Fear of the future.
Heidegger was a dedicated member of the Nazi party, he sanctioned book burning, and the removal of all Jews from the university including Husserl, who had been his teacher.
Post war never recanted his Nazi’sim and he was banned from teaching. Thus he was not read until the 1960s when he was popularised by his French follower Jean Paul Sartre.
Sartre’s Being and Nothingness attempts to remove the boundary of space-time from being. He takes the same structure as Heidegger.
Past = Guilt
Present = Boredom (unless obliterated by Dasein)
Future = Fear
- Existentia (subjective, being for/by yourself) vs Existense (objective, objectified, being for others).
Heidegger created three “modes of being”:
1. Vorhandenheit: objective existence in the sense understood in the “age of metaphysics” initiated by Descartes. The self as a thinking substance, a self – sufficient entity. Substances with qualia and attributes and capacities. These essences are ‘deworlded’
2. Zuhandenheit: The essence of Desein is its Zuhandenheit “to be”. We have no essence, we are what we do. Desein is always engaged in the world , it is always engaged in a task. This is like Heraclitus, you can’t stand in the same river twice.
3. Dasein: (pre-ontological existence, you know what to do, but you do not know why)
Existensia is “essence”. This is aristotlean soul, and it is rejected. There is no essence to existence beyond doing whatever it is you do – “existence preceeds essence” – ‘always engaged in activity’. This is a reversal of the Socratic system. Like Nietzsche, Heidegger harks back to the pre-socratics. Aristotle is a “dead duck” (rabbit).
Who am ‘I’?
- Descartes’ Cogito: “I think therefore I am” – mind-body dualism seen by Heideggar as a resurrection of the Augustinian Gnosticism the Scholastics had refuted with their deficient Aristotlean logic.
- Kant: transcendental unity of the categories; the object has to conform to the subjective categories.
- In Heidegger the subject is embedded in the world.
- The a-priori structure of Dasein is “being in the world”
- The object the “present to hand”.
- Pre-ontological understanding of being in the world, we are being and doing things long before we think about them; we can only reflect about objects, not understand them in the present. This is like Hegel.
- Authenticity Vs. Inauthenticity.
- Throw-ness, care, concern: this superceeds categorical understanding.
- Heidegger was reacting against Husserl and Freud’s ‘transcendental ego’ as an entity that is separate to things that it looks at.
The Outsider (The Stranger) by Albert Camus
First published in 1942, The Outsider (L’Étranger) , is a french novel that shows themes of Camus’s own philosophy of the absurd and existentialism.
“I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” – Albert Camus.
The main character, Meursault, narrates in the first person and limits his account to his own thoughts and perceptions. His description of the other characters is entirely subjective.
The story is set in Algeria, slightly before World War II. · The major conflict is Meursault’s struggle against society’s attempts to manufacture and impose rational explanations for his attitudes and actions (emotions towards the death of his mother and his decision to commit murder). This struggle is embodied by Meursault’s battle with the legal system that prosecutes him. Meursault shoots a man, known as “the Arab,” for no apparent reason. He is arrested for murder, jailed, tried in court, and sentenced to death. He then has an epiphany about “the gentle indifference of the world” after arguing with the chaplain about God’s existence. Meursault realises that, just as he is indifferent to much of the universe, so is the universe indifferent to him. Like all people, Meursault has been born, will die, and will have no further importance.
The Physical World:
The Stranger shows Meursault to be much more interested in the physical aspects of the world around him than in its social or emotional aspects. This focus on the sensate world results from the novel’s assertion that there exists no higher meaning or order to human life.
Meursault’s attention centres on his own body, on his physical relationship with Marie, on the weather, and on other physical elements of his surroundings. The heat during his mother’s funeral procession causes Meursault far more pain than the thought of burying her. In addition, the sun on the beach torments Meursault, and during his trial he even identifies his suffering under the sun as the reason he killed the Arab.
The style of Meursault’s narration also reflects his interest in the physical. Though he offers terse, plain descriptions when glossing over emotional or social situations, his descriptions become vivid and ornate when he discusses topics such as nature and the weather.
Metaphysics – Empirical and conceptual objects:
The world contains many individual things, both physical, like apples, and abstract, such as love and the number 3; the former objects are called particulars.
Particulars are said to have attributes, e.g., size, shape, color, location, and two particulars may have some such attributes in common. Some, such as Plato, argue that properties are abstract objects, existing outside of space and time, to which particular objects bear special relations.
You can read my previous notes on Plato here: (https://brackenstockley.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/history-and-context-classical-theory-of-state/).
Some ideas in The Stranger clearly resemble forms of existentialism. However, Camus himself rejected the application of the “existential” label to the novel. Instead it is best to look at the novel through the philosophical perspective of the absurd. “The absurd” is a term Camus himself coined, and a philosophy that he himself developed.
The “absurd“ refers to the conflict between:
(a) the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life; and
(b) the human inability to find any. In this context absurd does not mean “logically impossible”, but rather “humanly impossible”.
Absurdism is very closely related to existentialism and nihilism and has its origins in the 19th century Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, who chose to confront the crisis humans faced with the Absurd by developing existentialist philosophy.
Absurdism as a belief system was born of the European existentialist movement that ensued, specifically when French Algerian philosopher and writer Albert Camus rejected certain aspects from that philosophical line of thought and published his essay The Myth of Sisyphus.
The aftermath of World War II provided the social environment that stimulated absurdist views and allowed for their popular development, especially in the devastated country of France.
Looking for meaning in a meaningless world, humans have three ways of resolving the dilemma. Kierkegaard and Camus describe the solutions in their works, The Sickness Unto Death (1849) and The Myth of Sisyphus (1942):
- Suicide (or, “escaping existence”): a solution in which a person ends one’s own life. Both Kierkegaard and Camus dismiss the viability of this option. Camus states that it does not counter the Absurd, but only becomes more absurd, to end one’s own existence.
- Religious, spiritual, or abstract belief in a transcendent realm, being, or idea: a solution in which one believes in the existence of a reality that is beyond the Absurd, and, as such, has meaning. Kierkegaard stated that a belief in anything beyond the Absurd requires a non-rational but necessary religious acceptance in such an intangible and empirically unprovable thing (now commonly referred to as a “leap of faith”). However, Camus regarded this solution, and others, as “philosophical suicide”.
- Acceptance of the Absurd: a solution in which one accepts the Absurd and continues to live in spite of it. Camus endorsed this solution, believing that by accepting the Absurd, one can achieve absolute freedom, and that by recognizing no religious or other moral constraints and by revolting against the Absurd while simultaneously accepting it as unstoppable, one could possibly be content from the personal meaning constructed in the process. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, regarded this solution as “demoniac madness”: “He rages most of all at the thought that eternity might get it into its head to take his misery from him!“