Existentialism
(with special attention to the humanistic movement in American Psychology)


Sources:
Stumpf, A History of Philosophy, Book 1, Ch. 24
Kaufmann, W., (ed.),(1956) Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (Introduction). Meridian Books, N.Y.
Wahl, Jean (1949). A Short History of Existentialism. The Philosophical Library, N.Y.

Key people:

Dostoevsky, Soren Kierkegaard, Freidrich Nietzsche, Maria Ranier Rilke, Franz Kafka, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, Edmund Husserl, Heidegger, Maurice Merleu-Ponty, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus.

For a brief summary of existentialism, go to: http://www.tameri.com/csw/exist/exist.html

Existentialism - Emerged in Paris following WWII. A fad propounded in cafes that gained momentum. Very influential in modern times, probably more than any other philosophy. Includes influence in the novel, theater, poetry, art and theology. The fact that it arose in cafes and not in academic philosophy departments gives an indication of it’s orientation – non-academic, non-systematic. The existentialists seem to share a common opinion that academic philosophy is not relevant to the concerns of the everyday human being. For that reason a new direction is required, one that deals with what it means to be an existing human being.

From Stumpf: "…the existentialists all agreed that traditional philosophy was too academic and remote from life to have any adequate meaning for them. They rejected systematic and schematic thought in favor of a more spontaneous mode of expression in order to capture the authentic concerns of concrete existing individuals (emphasis added)."

A philosophy of existence. Most of the people discussed here do not share more than that orientation, and sometimes not even "a concern with the existing human being." This fits in with their desire not to be academic philosophers – they also do not want to be pigeonholed into a name of a school. Shall we say that they are all concerned with individuality then?

Despite not being "academic", there is some heavy philosophy in some of these writers, especially Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre.

Reasons for existentialism:

Individual over the centuries been pushed into the background by systems of thought, historical events, and technological forces.

Major systems of philosophy rarely paid attention to the uniquely personal concerns of individuals.

Nietzsche - "to our scholars, strangely enough, the most pressing question does not occur: to what end is their work...useful?"

Philosophy for most part dealt with technical problems of metaphysics, ethics, and the theory of knowledge in a general and objective manner, which bypassed the intimate concerns of men about their personal destiny.

Historical events, particularly wars, showed a similar disregard for the feelings and aspirations of individuals. Technology forces individuals to the rhythms of machines.

People losing their human qualities - persons into pronouns, subjects in to objects, from an I to an it.

Western man starting to exhibit all symptoms of his dehumanization.

Learning (philosophy) talks in abstract generalities and avoids the personal perplexities of individuals - soon men will conclude there is no expressible meaning for any human being's existence.

If wars overwhelm man despite efforts to the contrary, life would be regarded as precarious, ambiguous and insecure. Anxiety and feeling of being abandoned in an insensitive and random universe.

If technology harnessed men to the machine or the organization, men would find fewer occasions for expressing their existence as persons.

Religion, traditional source of man's sense of worth, meaning, and moral guidance, was itself suffering from the critical impact of rational and scientific thought.

Dostoevski - experimented with implications of a nonreligious estimate of man - can one successfully maintain that "since there is no God, everything is permitted"

Nietzsche - Bankruptcy of religious faith appeared to be the decisive cultural fact of his day. For all intents and purposes, God is Dead. We should accept this fact with courage and on it build a new conception of human existence

The general atheism helped give rise to existentialism, since breakdown of religion aggravated the growing sense of life's worthlessness and meaninglessness.

This is especially true of Nietsche and Kierkegaard.

From the above website, some quotes:

"Mankind is the only known animal, according to earth-bound existentialists, that defines itself through the act of living. In other words, first a man or woman exists, then the individual spends a lifetime changing his or her essence. Without life there can be no meaning; the search for meaning in existentialism is the search for self…which is why there is existential psychotherapy. (Imagine a therapist telling people life has no meaning!). In other words, we define ourselves by living; suicide would indicate you have chosen to have no meaning."

Note: this is, of course, why therapists have taken up existential elements. It is a philosophy of the everyday man, the search for meaning. Question: what does it mean to have a meaningful life? Will finding a meaning help those with psychological problems?

"In order to understand the current meaning of existentialism, one must first understand that the American view of existentialism was derived from the writings of three political activists, not intellectual purists. Americans learned the term existential after World War II. The term was coined by Jean Paul Sartre to describe his own philosophies. It was not until the late 1950’s that the term was applied broadly to several divergent schools of thought."

"Despite encompassing a staggering range of philosophical, religious, and political ideologies, the underlying concepts of existentialism are simple:

Mid 19th century - The melancholy Dane Kierkegaard, with variations found in Schelling and Marx, Nietzsche, William James, Bergson, Pascal. More differences than commonalities, but all focussed on a concern about human existence, the conditions and quality of the existing human individual.

Some existentialists turn toward a reexamination of religion, others begin with atheism.

All have in common the view that traditional academic philosophy was too academic and remote from life to have any adequate meaning for them. Rejected systematic and schematic thought in favor of more spontaneous modes of expression in order to capture the authentic concerns of concrete existing individuals.

 

Friedrich Nietzsche
1844-1900, German

Readings:
The Challenge of Every Great Philosophy
The Gay Science
On Free Death
The Beginning of "The Will to Power"
From Ecce Homo

The Challenge of Every Great Philosophy: On following the mass vs. being an individual. Uses a comparison between Kant (the conformist) and Schopenhauer (the individualist).

The Gay Science: On the nature of work, and, The Madman, his famous "God is dead" dissertation, the notion that man is something that must be overcome, and giving style to one's character.

On Free Death: On dying at the right time.

The Beginning of "The Will to Power": On the future of Europe (from last century, remember).

From Ecce Homo: A bit on the German spirit, just to demonstrate that Nietzsche would not have supported the Nazis, despite what some people have said.

 

Ranier Marie Rilke

1875-1926, German

Readings:
Excerpts from The Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge
   Interesting stuff on individuality and the time we have left to us.

 

Soren Kierkegaard

1813-1855, born in Copenhagen.

Thought Hegel was comic. (Hegel had introduced time into his philosophy, which was new, and, I would suggest, a right step in the direction of seeing man as "situated". However, he viewed history as being the evolution of a rational spirit or Mind. This spirit was realizing itself throughout history and would eventually result in a perfectly rational world - note that Marx, influence by Hegel, kept this idea of the world achieving perfection, and hence his idea that a utopia would eventually be reached). He tried to capture all of reality in his system and yet left out the most important part - existence. This term reserved for the individual human being.

To exist - to be a certain kind of individual who strives, who considers alternatives, who chooses, who decides, and who, above all, commits himself.

One is face with personal choices. Men constantly find themselves in an "existential situation". So our thinking ought to deal with our own personal choices with a view to coming to terms with the problem of alternatives and choices.

Existence refers to a quality in the individual, his conscious participation in an act. Only a person who is engaged in conscious activity of will and choice can be truly said to exist.

Notes on text:

p. 447 – note the emphasis on subjectivity. It is how we interpret the world that is important.

Note also the concept of alienation. Estrangement (part of the human condition) is caused by man’s anxiety over his own finitude. We are conscious of our own finitude (death), which makes us different from other objects and animals. This is different from a Marxist conception of alienation, which suggests that estrangement is the result of a particular historical, economic, and social situation.

Question: is the alienation that existentialists describe a necessary part of the human condition or is it the result of existential (existing) situations? What do you think?

Note also his distrust of the crowd. It is a fact, discussed by many sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers, that our behavior in a crowd is different than when we are acting alone. K says that we are living an untruth when acting in the herd, and that we reduce responsibility for our actions. This fits in with the notion that we are not ourselves in this type of social situation. This was later extended to the idea of a social "mask" that hides our true self. Consider for a moment that this simplifies the issue of what we are, because at bottom we are social beings.

p. 450 – "This Kierkegaard’s central point, namely, that each person possesses an essential self, which ha ought to actualize."

Note the idea of "self-actualization", so common in American humanistic psychology.

However, actualization has a particular meaning for K…."This essential self is fixed by the very fact that man must inescapably become related to God."

Without a relation to God man will not self-actualize.



Read the following article by Kierkegaard: The Seriousness of Making Choices

 

Husserl (phenomenology): Husserl is often not even included in discussions of existentialism. His student, Heidegger, however is (see below). Husserl is a "phenomenologist", that is to say, he developed the idea that it is how we interpret the world, the meaning we give to actions and objects, that determines our behavior. Therefore Husserl is very relevant to modern humanistic psychology and important for this course.

Brian, you mentioned that phenomenology seems too "subjective" and that it does not jive with doing science. This is perhaps the central topic that Husserl was trying to address, so I will try to show what this issue is all about. I will make references to the reading throughout. I think both of you have had philosophy, so I assume that I simply have to jog your memories on certain points...

I see philosophy as moving toward a "situated" view of human beings. Situated in time and place, with a particular morphology (physical form), patterns of social interactions, and in a structured environment. I will try to make this more clear later as we go. Meanwhile, I will try to situate Husserl, the phenomenological approach, and the existentialists within what I see as a major movement in philosophy.

Since the rise of science it has been evident to philosophers that previous claims regarding how we "know" (epistemology) have to be reconsidered. Philosophy has always justified itself in part by claiming to have access to a truth not immediately available to the uninitiated. With the obvious success of science philosophers then tried to provide new theories of knowledge which explained how science is possible, and sometimes, how we can justify religious beliefs at the same time.

This led to two major schools of thought, the rationalists and the empiricists. The rationalists, starting with Descartes, claimed that we start on the road to knowledge with intuitive ideas, ideas that could not be denied as true by anyone, and then deduce what the world must be like. The empiricists reacted against this by arguing that all knowledge has to be acquired by experience (e.g. Locke). As it turned out, the hard sciences tended to go with the empiricists, and the human sciences tended to go with the rationalists, since it gave priority to "mind."

Both of these approaches led to philosophical dead ends. Kant tried to come up with a synthesis that united the best elements of rationalism (metaphysical speculation) and empiricism (scientific knowledge). His greatest achievement was given by his "Copernican Revolution" - in other words, Kant turned epistemology on its head. Instead of starting with the idea that there is a world independent of ourselves (which we know either by intuition or by sensory impressions), He made the radical claim that we cannot know any such world, because we are involved or implicated in its construction. Kant was the first to be concerned with the linkage between the knower to the known. He considered oherent experience to be an outcome of the knower's employment of categories upon the unformed surround. Hence, the categories were necessary for the "possibility of experience". None of our knowledge can transcend experience, but knowledge is nevertheless in part a priori and not inferred inductively from experience. In large part this "a priori" knowldge is logic, but it includes other things as well.

Alternatively stated, experience is analyzed as an output of the inextricable linkage between observer and observed.

A consequence of this perspective is that all assertions be viewed as epistemological and not ontological assertions. We can never talk of direct experience of objects, for we are inextricably involved in their construction. This is very important. It means that our experience (and knowledge) is "constructed," or arises out of some kind of interaction between a structuring organism and an external world. Scientific as well as everyday knowledge is therefore a result of this "construction." This brings to the foreground the problematic relationship between the observer and the observed.

Ever since Kant there has been a general movement across disparate disciplines toward a concern with the relation of the observer to the phenomenon under investigation. It is basic to physics - Einstein's theory of relativity, which says that our knowledge of the universe is relative to time, movement and space; Hiesenberg's uncertainty principle, which says that the act of observing elementary particles necessitates our changing their characteristics. In mathematics and psychology, we have come to view mathematics and logic as our constructions, and as not representing the nature of the world or mind. In history, Dilthey made the point that we must continually rewrite history (no objective historical account). Today's literary criticism emphasizes the reader's role in "constructing" the text.
Freud presented us with anything but an "objective" observer. Our experience arises from unconscous motives ("ways of seeing") that have their origin in the situation of our development.

So a concern with the relationship of the observer to the observed is part of the general zietgiest in many disciplines today. After Kant, though, there are many different directions taken on this issue. Existentialism is one.

There is another distinction I must introduce here, in addition to rationalism vs. empiricism. I don't know the origins of this distinction, although in philosophy class I start talking about it after Kant. However, it is a distinction that we can carry back to the Greeks. This is the dualism of idealism vs. realism. Idealism refers to any philosophy that ends up in pure subjectivity - that is, that the only thing we can know is what is in our own mind. No objective knowledge of any outside world possible. Realism is the other way around, of course - our mind conforms to a reality outside of ourselves. Both perspectives have good arguments both for and against, but like all dualisms, this one needs to be reworked.

Now, try to get what's happening here. Sure, there is a world out there. The only "problem" is that there is no objective "God's eye view." We select what we see, we give meaning to what the world is. Every attempt to describe an "objective" reality fails.

[Perhaps you have heard of the first of the great 5 schools of psychology, the structuralists, led by Wundt and Titchener. Titchener spent a lot of time trying to teach his graduate students to describe their sensory experiences in an objective way. If I show you a piece of white paper and asked you to describe what you see, you were to say something like "a white rectangle, of such and such a size, very thin, translucent, etc." If you said a "piece of paper", you were adding meaning to it. So do I see geometric forms, textures, colors, etc. or do I directly see a table, a chair, a lamp? Of course it is ridiculous to try to separate our "objective" from our "subjective" experience.]

Our knowledge is the result of our experience, and our experience arises out of ourselves doing things in the world. The issue then becomes "what is it that we are doing?"

Let's go back to Husserl. Go to the section in your primary reading on "Husserl and Descartes." (p. 454) " His concern is to discover and describe the given in experience as it is presented in its pure form and found as the immediate data of consciousness." and "...Husserl [begins] where Descartes began, with the thinking self." From there there is an explanation of the concepts of intentionality and the phenomenological epoché. These are mental mechanisms that try to explain how it is that we create experience. Husserl's perspective is a phenomenological intellectualism, one that falls on the side of idealism. By giving priority to "the thinking subject" his perspective has to fall on the side of idealism, the idea that all we can finally know is our own mind.

Husserl's phenomenology has had tremendous influence, especially when we consider the humanistic movement in psychology. "His concern is to discover and describe the given in experience as it is presented in its pure form and found as the immediate data of conscious." This is exactly what most of the humanists try to do - it is how the patient interprets the world that is of importance. It is the meaning that the patient gives to actions and events that determines whether the patient is well adjusted or has psychological difficulties.

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969): Existentialism from a religious orientation. Don't worry too much about him.

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973): Same comments as for Jaspers.

Heidegger (1889-1976)

Jean Paul Sartre
1905-1980, French

Readings:
The Wall
Existentialism is a Humanism

Nausea - His best work (according to him) in which he dealt with the pathological feeling one has upon experiencing through intuition the accidental and absurd nature of existence, the feeling that human existence is "contingent" and without explicit purpose.

Took an active part in the French resistance and was a German prisoner of war. Spent most of his life writing. Attended the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

Influenced by Marxism, but not a communist

Lifelong companionship with Simone de Beauvoir.

 

Sarte's existentialism

Popularized heavy philosophy of people like Heidegger.

Three influences:

Marx, Husserl, Heidegger.

All focussed on man's active role in forging his own destiny.

Classical formulation of existentialism:

Existence precedes essence. A reversal of philosophy since Plato.

Man's nature cannot be explained in same way as an object of manufacture for which a conception and purpose is preconceived. God created man.

All previous philosophers, though atheists, maintained the idea that there is a human nature found in every man. Each person is an instance of universal man. Essence precedes concrete historical existence.

To take atheism seriously is to give up this idea of man's essence. No a priori conception.

Man first exists, confronts himself, emerges in the world and defines himself afterwards. Man is simply that which he makes of himself.

 

This doesn't mean that man can be anything he wants, but that man has greater dignity than a stone.

Two modes of being:

Being-in itself (l'en-soi) : he is

Being-for-itself (le pour-soi) : he is a conscious subject.

To be a conscious subject is to stand directly before a future.

This means that man is responsible for his own existence. If man's nature was already fixed, he couldn't be responsible for what he is.

 

Ethics

If man is what he makes of himself, he has no one to blame for what he is except himself. Moreover, when man chooses in the process of making himself, he chooses not only for himself but for all men.

So one is not only responsible for himself, but for all humans.

A contradiction? Before we can act we must ask what would happen if everyone else acted in the same way, which would assume a human nature.

He says though there is no universal guide, but by acting we help create an image of man's essence. By acting we affirm the value of what we have chosen, and nothing can be better for one if it is not better for all.

Wants to draw attention to the common human experience of choosing without a guide and at the same time asking whether they would be willing for all humans to act in the same way.

We engage in self-deception when we think that we would not want others to act as we do.

Choosing is filled with anguish, for we are not only responsible for ourselves, but for each other. If we try to evade this responsibility through self-deception will not be at ease in his conscious.

Albert Camus
1913-19--, French

Readings:
The Myth of Sisyphus