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A look at existentialism in the early 19th century

The Emergence of Existence as a Philosophical Problem Sartre's existentialism drew its immediate inspiration from the work of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Though in 1946 Heidegger would repudiate the retrospective labelling of his earlier work as existentialism, it is in that work that the relevant concept of existence finds its first systematic philosophical formulation.

And while not all existential philosophers were influenced by phenomenology for instance Jaspers and Marcelthe philosophical legacy of existentialism is largely tied to the form it took as an existential version of phenomenology. The existentialists welcomed Husserl's doctrine of intentionality as a refutation of the Cartesian view according to which consciousness relates immediately only to its own representations, ideas, sensations. According to Husserl, consciousness is our direct openness to the world, one that is governed categorially normatively rather than causally; that is, intentionality is not a property of the individual mind but the categorial framework in which mind and world become intelligible.

  1. Existentialism is a tradition of philosophical inquiry associated mainly with certain 19th and 20th-century european philosophers as sartre says in his lecture existentialism is a humanism. The Ethics of Ambiguity New York.
  2. In order for it to influence his behavior he has to avow it afresh, but this is just what he cannot do; indeed, just this is what he hoped the original resolve would spare him from having to do. Fear, for instance, reveals some region of the world as threatening, some element in it as a threat, and myself as vulnerable.
  3. Although this is not the first history of nineteenth century philosophy to harvey looks back at the cognitive content of early nineteenth century theology although one of the essays includes the claim that existentialism has. Insofar as he or she is authentic, the freedom of the human being will show a certain 'resolution' or 'commitment', and this will involve also the being — and particularly the authentic being — of others.

In turning phenomenology toward the question of what it means to be, Heidegger insists that the question be raised concretely: Existential themes take on salience when one sees that the general question of the meaning of being involves first becoming clear about one's own being as an inquirer.

According to Heidegger, the categories bequeathed by the philosophical tradition for understanding a being who can question his or her being are insufficient: One can find anticipations of existential thought in many places for instance, in Socratic irony, Augustine, Pascal, or the late Schellingbut the roots of the problem of existence in its contemporary significance lie in the work of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

Subsequent existential thought reflects this difference: A focus on existence thus led, in both, to unique textual strategies quite alien to the philosophy of their time. In Kierkegaard, the singularity of existence comes to light at the moment of conflict between ethics and religious faith. Suppose it is my sense of doing God's will that makes my life meaningful.

How does philosophy conceive this meaning? In doing so I lose my individuality since the law holds for all but my actions become meaningful in the sense of understandable, governed by a norm. Now a person whose sense of doing God's will is what gives her life meaning will be intelligible just to the extent that her action conforms to the universal dictates of ethics.

  1. As such, existentialism presents itself as a humanism.
  2. The linguistic differences, however, are not decisive for a determination of philosophical affinities.
  3. Camus shares this suspicion and his so called philosophy of the absurd intends to set limits to the overambitions of Western rationality. Notice that these are all collective terms.
  4. Be that as it may, it is clear that one can commit oneself to a life of chamealeon-like variety, as does Don Juan in Kierkegaard's version of the legend. But what does it that mean?
  5. Why ought I help the homeless, answer honestly, sit reverently, or get up?

But what if, as in case of Abraham's sacrifice of his son, the action contradicts what ethics demands?

Kierkegaard[ 3 ] believes both that Abraham's life is supremely meaningful it is not simply a matter of some immediate desire or meaningless tic that overcomes Abraham's ethical consciousness; on the contrary, doing the moral thing is itself in this case his tempting inclination and that philosophy cannot understand it, thus condemning it in the name of ethics. God's command here cannot be seen as a law that would pertain to all; it addresses Abraham in his singularity.

Abraham has no objective reason to think that the command he hears comes from God; indeed, based on the content of the command he has every reason, as Kant pointed out in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, to think that it cannot come from God. His sole justification is what Kierkegaard calls the passion of faith. Since it is a measure not of knowing but of being, one can see how Kierkegaard answers those who object that his concept of subjectivity as truth is based on an equivocation: The truths that matter to who one is cannot, like Descartes' morale definitif, be something to be attained only when objective science has completed its task.

Responding in part to the cultural situation in nineteenth-century Europe—historical scholarship continuing to erode fundamentalist readings of the Bible, the growing cultural capital of the natural sciences, and Darwinism in particular—and in part driven by his own investigations into the psychology and history of moral concepts, Nietzsche sought to draw the consequences of a look at existentialism in the early 19th century death of God, the collapse of any theistic support for morality.

  • Like Sartre it is only later in her life that this will be acknowledged;
  • Camus, for example, argues that the basic scene of human existence is its confrontation with this mute irrationality;
  • Kierkegaard has been associated with a notion of truth as subjective or personal ; but what does this mean?

Like his contemporary, Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose character, Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov, famously argues that if God does not exist then everything is permitted, Nietzsche's overriding concern is to find a way to take the measure of human life in the modern world. Unlike Dostoevsky, however, Nietzsche sees a complicity between morality and the Christian God that perpetuates a life-denying, and so ultimately nihilistic, stance. Nietzsche was not the first to de-couple morality from its divine sanction; psychological theories of the moral sentiments, developed since the eighteenth century, provided a purely human account of moral normativity.

On the account given in On the Genealogy of Morals, the Judeo-Christian moral order arose as an expression of the ressentiment of the weak against the power exercised over them by the strong.

The normative is nothing but the normal.

Yet this is not the end of the story for Nietzsche, any more than it was for Kierkegaard. In such a situation the individual is forced back upon himself.

  • Many existentialists take my concretely individual body, and the specific type of life that my body lives, as a primary fact about me for example, Nietzsche, Scheler or Merleau-Ponty;
  • The notion of authenticity is sometimes seen as connected to individualism;
  • Neither Kierkegaard nor Nietzsche, however, developed this insight in a fully systematic way;
  • So long as I am gearing into the world practically, in a seamless and absorbed way, things present themselves as meaningfully co-ordinated with the projects in which I am engaged; they show me the face that is relevant to what I am doing;
  • On the Genealogy of Morality Cambridge;
  • As with Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith, one cannot tell who is authentic by looking at the content of their lives.

On the one hand, if he is weakly constituted he may fall victim to despair in the face of nihilism, the recognition that life has no instrinsic meaning.

He has understood that nihilism is the ultimate meaning of the moral point of view, its life-denying essence, and he reconfigures the moral idea of autonomy so as to release the life-affirming potential within it. If such existence is to be thinkable there must be a standard by which success or failure can be measured. To say that a work of art has style is to invoke a standard for judging it, but one that cannot be specified in the form of a general law of which the work would be a mere instance.

Rather, in a curious way, the norm is internal to the work. For Nietzsche, existence falls under such a look at existentialism in the early 19th century imperative of style: As did Kierkegaard, then, Nietzsche uncovers an aspect of my being that can be understood neither in terms of immediate drives and inclinations nor in terms of a universal law of behavior, an aspect that is measured not in terms of an objective inventory of what I am but in terms of my way of being it.

Neither Kierkegaard nor Nietzsche, however, developed this insight in a fully systematic way. That would be left to their twentieth-century heirs. In contrast to other entities, whose essential properties are fixed by the kind of entities they are, what is essential to a human being—what makes her who she is—is not fixed by her type but by what she makes of herself, who she becomes. It is in light of this idea that key existential notions such as facticity, transcendence projectalienation, and authenticity must be understood.

At first, it seems hard to understand how one can say much about existence as such. Traditionally, philosophers have connected the concept of existence with that of essence in such a way that the former signifies merely the instantiation of the latter. It is from essence in this sense—say, human being as rational animal or imago Dei—that ancient philosophy drew its prescriptions for an individual's way of life, its estimation of the meaning and value of existence.

Having an essence meant that human beings could be placed within a larger whole, a kosmos, that provided the standard for human flourishing.

Such an entity's existing cannot, therefore, be thought as the instantiation of an essence, and consequently what it means to be such an entity cannot be determined by appeal to pre-given frameworks or systems—whether scientific, historical, or philosophical. Entities of the first sort, exemplified by tools as they present themselves in use, are defined by the social practices in which they are employed, and their properties are established in relation to the norms of those practices.

A saw is sharp, for instance, in relation to what counts as successful cutting. Entities a look at existentialism in the early 19th century the second sort, exemplified by objects of perceptual contemplation or scientific investigation, are defined by the norms governing perceptual givenness or scientific theory-construction.

An available or occurrent entity instantiates some property if that property is truly predicated of it. Human beings can be considered in this way as well. However, in contrast to the previous cases, the fact that natural and social properties can truly be predicated of human beings is not sufficient to determine what it is for me to be a human being. This, the existentialists argue, is because such properties are never merely brute determinations of who I am but are always in question.

It is what it is not and is not what it is Sartre 1992: Human existence, then, cannot be thought through categories appropriate to things: In this sense human beings make themselves in situation: If such a view is not to collapse into contradiction the notions of facticity and transcendence must be elucidated.

Risking some oversimplification, they can be approached as the correlates of the two attitudes I can take toward myself: Facticity includes all those properties that third-person investigation can establish about me: From an existential point of view, however, this would be a look at existentialism in the early 19th century error—not because these aspects of my being are not real or factual, but because the kind of being that I am cannot be defined in factual, or third-person, terms. Though third-person observation can identify skin color, class, or ethnicity, the minute it seeks to identify them as mine it must contend with the distinctive character of the existence I possess.

There is no sense in which facticity is both mine and merely a matter of fact, since my existence—the kind of being I am—is also defined by the stance I take toward my facticity. An agent is oriented by the task at hand as something to be brought about through its own will or agency.

Such orientation does not take itself as a theme but loses itself in what is to be done. Thereby, things present themselves not as indifferent givens, facts, but as meaningful: It may be—the argument runs—that I can be said to choose a course of action at the conclusion of a process of deliberation, but there seems to be no choice involved when, in the heat of the moment, I toss the useless pen aside in frustration.

But the point in using such language is simply to insist that in the first-person perspective of agency I cannot conceive myself as determined by anything that is available to me only in third-person terms.

Because my projects are who I am in the mode of engaged agency and not like plans that I merely represent to myself in reflective deliberationthe world in a certain sense reveals to me who I am. For reasons to be explored in the next section, the meaning of my choice is not always transparent to me.

Existential psychoanalysis represents a kind of compromise between the first- and third-person perspectives: In the first place, though it is through my projects that world takes on meaning, the world itself is not brought into being through my projects; it retains its otherness and thus can come forth as utterly alien, as unheimlich.

This experience, basic to existential thought, contrasts most sharply with the ancient notion of a kosmos in which human beings have a well-ordered place, and it connects existential thought tightly to the modern experience of a meaningless universe.

In the second place, the world includes other people, and as a consequence I am not merely the revealer of the world but something revealed in the projects of those others.

I am not merely looking through a keyhole; I am a voyeur. I cannot originally experience myself as something—a voyeur, for instance. Only the other can give rise to this mode of my being, a mode that I acknowledge as mine and not merely the other's opinion of me in the shame in which I register it.

A look at existentialism in the early 19th century

It is because there are others in the world that I can take a third-person perspective on myself; but this reveals the extent to which I am alienated from a dimension of my being: This has implications for existential social theory see the section on Sartre: Existentialism and Marxism below.

Finally, the self-understanding, or project, thanks to which the world is there for me in a meaningful way, already belongs to that world, derives from it, from the tradition or society in which I find myself. This theme is brought out most clearly by Heidegger: The idea is something like this: Practices can allow things to show up as meaningful—as hammers, dollar bills, or artworks—because practices involve aims that carry with them norms, satisfaction conditions, for what shows up in them.

But norms and rules, as Wittgenstein has shown, are essentially public, and that means that when I engage in practices I must be essentially interchangeable with anyone else who does: I eat as one eats; I drive as one drives; I even protest as one protests.

To the extent that my activity is to be an instance of such a practice, I must do it in the normal way. Deviations can be recognized as deviations only against this norm, and if they deviate too far they can't be recognized at all.

Existentialism

If such standards traditionally derive from the essence that a particular thing instantiates—this hammer is a good one if it instantiates what a hammer is supposed to be—and if there is nothing that a human being is, by its essence, supposed to be, can the meaning of existence at all be thought? Existentialism arises with the collapse of the idea that philosophy can provide substantive norms for existing, ones that specify particular ways of life.

Authenticity—in German, Eigentlichkeit—names that attitude in which I engage in my projects as my own eigen. What this means can perhaps be brought out by considering moral evaluations. In keeping my promise I act in accord with duty; and if I keep it because it is my duty, I also act morally according to Kant because I am acting for the sake of duty.

But existentially there is still a further evaluation to be made. But I can do the same thing authentically if, in keeping my promise for the sake of duty, acting this way is something I choose as my own, something to which, apart from its social sanction, I commit myself.

Similarly, doing the right thing from a fixed and stable character—which virtue ethics considers a condition of the good—is not beyond the reach of existential evaluation: But such character might also be a reflection of my choice of myself, a commitment I make to be a person of this sort. In both cases I have succeeded in being good; only in the latter case, however, have I succeeded in being myself. Some writers have taken this notion a step further, arguing that the measure of an authentic life lies in the integrity of a narrative, that to be a self is to constitute a story in which a kind of wholeness prevails, to be the author of oneself as a unique individual Nehamas 1998; Ricoeur 1992.