Sunday, March 16, 2008

Right Here Right Now

I am an existentialist. That is a difficult thing to say not only because Existentialism is such a difficult movement to pin down (though it is) but, because it has also been out of fashion since the 1950’s. So it is somewhat embarrassing to say “I am an existentialist” in the same way that the middle-aged stockbroker in an Armani suit is just a little embarrassed to say “ In college back in the ‘60’s I used to wear tied-dyed T-shirts and told myself that only fascist drove Volvos.”

Another reason it is somewhat embarrassing to admit to being an existentialist is that there is a general conception that existentialists are a group of morose or depressed individuals. Sort of like a room full of Edgar Allen Poe want-to-be types only they don’t write poetry but prose in French or German.

In reality, only some existentialists were morose and depressed. At least one was insane. Quite a few were religious unless they were Atheist. Heidegger was a NAZI but his friend Jan Husserl whom he dedicated his book “Being and Time” to was Jewish, as was Henri Bergson. Jaspers was a psychologist before giving up that pseudoscience to pursue uncertain philosophic truth. Kierkegaard was a devout Lutheran whose meditations are still read in Danish churches. Some like Jean-Paul Sartre attained a kind of celebrity status if only for the purpose of seducing women[1], while others like Bergson and Popper sought ways harmonize philosophy, science and religion. Some existentialists are read only by other existentialist if at all; but Camus was a best selling novelist. Francis Schaeffer was a Protestant missionary in Switzerland who wrote books in which he spent a lot of time complaining about how existentialist are a bad influence are on society but his theology is based upon experiencing a personal God so you could, in a sense call him a Christian Fundamentalist-Existentialist.

If you look around you can probably find an existential writer to praise or blame, support or debunk any subject you can think of.

Which brings us to the central questions; “What is Existentialism?” and “Why am I am Existentialist?”

What ties existential thinkers together is a belief in experience. Existentialists generally believe that it is our experiences which explain reality not primarily logic, reason or laws. It is this emphasis upon experience that separates existential philosophy from not only more popular schools of philosophy but even from concepts like Dadaist art. Art is not, to the existentialist what the artist says it is, that is Nihilism which I think is a form of sophistry, but rather art is important because of what the experience of experiencing the art reveals about us and the artist.

Believing that experience is equal to reason, and logic and doesn't mean that existentialist don't believe in moral absolutes, ethics or science. Just that they don't feel you can separate the experience from the fact in most cases.

I do not always agree with everything that every existentialist says. Far from it; often I often disagree heartily. But, because I recognize the role of experience in the thought process I can better talk to people that have different points of view. It also gives me a way to convince those who hold different views. I can simply say "Try it, you'll like it"

Something that I find funny about existentialism is that you can an existentialist and be almost anything else at the same time. You can be a philosophic Idealist, a Platonist if you will and still be an existentialist at the same time. But, you can also be a philosophical Realist, have Aristotle memorized in the original Greek and heartily agree that Thomas Aquinas is the greatest intellect in 1500 years and still be an existentialists. I guess you could probably be a Nihilist, believing that nothing is real and go around trying to experience nothing in an existential manner but the difference between that and a Buddhist might be hard to explain to all those people who aren’t really there and probably couldn’t careless.

Experience is broad topic. As you can imagine there is considerable disagreement over what constitutes a “valid” existential experience and different existentialist have looked at different types of experience as valid. Early in his career, Heidegger said that the ultimate experience was our angst over death but as he grew older he thought that we should look to our poetic muse and the creation of beauty in the world and in our lives. Sartre, thought the universe was meaningless and wrote about our feelings of alienation and striving to impose meaning and personality upon an impersonal universe. Martin Buber and Soren Kierkegaard describe experience in terms of faith and experiencing God. This means that existentialist maybe tied together by their emphasis upon experience but the rope has lots of slack and the knot isn’t that tight. That is one of the things that makes’ existentialism attractive to me. There is room for all sorts of people. I think it was Richard Rorty who said something like “90 % of everything that philosophers say is wrong; but the 10% they get right explains 99% of everything else.” Well, that statement is as true of existentialism as it is of any

This broadness and amorphous quality of existentialism is my chief proof for my next statement. I am an existentialist because I believe that we are all, every one of us, regardless of culture, creed or gender, are existentialist. We may, and many do, try and deny this. We want to deny it because it is a scary thought. We want the universe to make sense. We want to be able to prove, to know, to understand. Existentialism offers no assurance we will find those things. But, look around. How many of the decisions we make each day are really based upon logic, or reason? The closest we normally get to those things is biology. Indeed, we almost never use reason or logic as the sole basis for important decisions. Even if we think we do. For example; when I wanted to get married I did not advertise a vacancy for a spouse, collect resumes, have candidates vetted for, attractiveness, earning potential, compatibility, age or what not. It didn’t happen that way at all. It never does. If we look, most of the major decisions we make are made according some metaphysical soup ethics, logic and experience. I think that the more important the decision, the less logic and reason actually have to do with it. The sooner we realize that the sooner we will make better decisions.

Does that mean I don’t believe in logic, reason or absolutes? No, it does mean that I am aware that many times I will use reason, logic and other external cannons to justify my own desires. Reason and logic are not the deities that eighteenth-century French philosophers thought them to be. They are tools, a kind of mental hammer that allow us to break down our desires into simpler parts that we can understand. We’d see that we aren’t half as smart as we think we are but maybe far wiser.

We are all creatures of experience. We all live, or should live for the love of life. Not that it is always pleasant, or easy or even understandable; but just because it is. Is there a meaning to it all? Science, logic and reason can never know. But the existentialist can; right here right now.

More on this at a later time.

[1] March 16, 2008

Until Next Time
Fai mao
The Philosopher Want-to-be Blogger

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