Hello Truthseekers! I am in the process of moving the thinkPhilosophy podcast to Continental Philosophy Now. In the interim, links to the podcast found in this blog will not work, or will send you to their old page. Please bear with me as I rework the sites! Thank You, Dr.A
In short, we are not duped by morality, if morality is based in an ethical relation to the Other that precedes not only knowledge and meaning, but our very being as human subjects. Morality is not based on principles, a calculus, or practices, but is, first and foremost, founded our absolute responsibility in the face-to-face relation with an Other.
Listen to our podcast on Alterity and Desire: Levinas On the Face-To-Face Encounter With the Other by following this link now!
This is a great, concrete example of a situation we have all been in. I think we can all relate to feeling relief when someone offers to step in and take charge, to steer us back to safety. And some of us, in speaking with our friends, may want to be told what to do when faced with a difficult decision. Our friends may even think they are doing the right thing by stepping in, not realizing that this is a kind of concern that doesn’t allow us to make our own decisions and carry out our own solutions.
The problem is that in leaping in and taking charge, our friend has disabled us from taking care of our own business, and (more important in existential terms) unburdened us of the responsibility - which, of course, is what makes it so appealing. In giving over our responsibility and power to act, we allow our friend to dominate us, a pattern that undermines our agency. Unwittingly, we have put ourselves in a position of dependency with respect to our friend. In short, this kind of friend is one that robs us of our autonomy.
Compare this with the friend who leaps ahead of us instead:
This blog post is one in a series related to questions of the Other in Continental Philosophy. The following excerpt comes from Heidegger's account of Being-with (Mitsein) in Being and Time. You can listen to the full podcast below:
What is the Problem of the Other?
In previous posts, we took a look at theories of Intersubjectivity that assumed a cooperative and harmonious relation to the Other as a norm. This week, we turn to conflictual theories of Intersubjectivity: Whether it be the other who threatens our status as original consciousness in Hegel; the anonymous others amongst whom we find ourselves thrown as per Heidegger; the Other who robs us of our freedom and autonomy, reducing us to objects, as in Sartre's existentialism; or the face to face encounter with an Other who calls us to an ethics of responsibility, below is an overview of the story of the Other who troubles philosophy.
Hegel (1770–1831): The Self and its Other, Master and Slave
According to Hegel’s story about the evolution of spirit or mind, consciousness becomes self-consciousness in the confrontation between one consciousness and another. Both seeking recognition as the true, original, and authentic consciousness, a duel onto death takes place. The result is an asymmetrical relation of difference where one consciousness chooses freedom over life and becomes the master of the slave consciousness that chooses life over freedom.
Through negation, the slave is turned into the Master's Other, a projective surface for the Master's needs and desires. But the revelation of Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic is that the dialectic is carried forward not by the Master, but on the side of the Slave who must come to consciousness as independent being through the fruits of his labor.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976): Mitsein and "the They"
For Heidegger, anonymous others comprise Dasein's original state of being-with (Mitsein). These anonymous others are referred to collectively as "the They," a mass of humanity with whom we are thrown into the world. Dasein is a part of the being-with amongst "the They," from whom Dasein does not distinguish itself, for the most part. Even setting itself apart from these others is an experience common to "the They" - we all long to be recognized for being special and unique individuals.
So how does Dasein transcend “the They” and come into what existentialists call authenticity? only in taking on its own being-toward-death does Dasein catch a glimpse of transcendence, lifting itself out of "the They." We’ll take a closer look at the sections where Heidegger speaks about being-with or Mitsein, but lets continue in summary form to look at Sartre’s take on the Other.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1956): "Hell Is Other People"
In Part III of Being and Nothingness entitled “The Look,” Sartre denies a basic assumption of Hegel’s - that I can apprehend and absorb how the other sees me as an object. As he writes:
“I am incapable of apprehending for myself the self which I am for the other, just as I am incapable of apprehending on the basis of the other-as-object which appears to me, what the Other is for himself” (Being and Nothingness 327).
The self here cannot fully comprehend the Other, and the mirror that the other provides is not transparent. The Other is not a passive or inert mirror, but blurs and distorts our own self-understanding. The other modifies my own sense of self, against me and inspite of me, denies me control of my own self-understanding.
The Other undercuts the subject’s freedom and self-determination. To recognize the other as such is to see oneself through an alien and alienating mirror that we want to counter and negate. Thus, the essence of the subject’s relation to the Other is conflict, and any encounter with alterity is, by necessity, alienating. As he puts it in his play No Exit, "Hell is other people."
Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995): The Face to Face Encounter With The Other
Levinas’ thinking on intersubjectivity and the Other begins from the rejection of previous models that don’t seem to allow for an authentic encounter with true alterity, the otherness of the Other. For him, the Other is not there to be known (and the Other resists our attempts to comprehend), a rejection of the epistemological framework of his predecessors.
Instead, Levinas names Ethics as emerging from an encounter with the Other. A face to face encounter with an Other, described in phenomenological terms, inaugurates language and thought; and therefore, this encounter is a condition for the possibility for knowledge of any kind. Finally, this encounter calls one out and makes one responsible for the Other, a responsibility that cannot be done away with -- that is, it is irreducible.
We begin with a cab driver, and let us make them the best cab driver in our city. Our driver has been driving a cab for many years and has memorized all the streets names and best routes. They take pride in knowing the fastest and best ways to travel from one part of the city to another, accounting for traffic at different times of day.
Now, along comes an app that can calculate the best way to get from point A to point B, taking account of real time traffic conditions. The app is (hypothetically, now) better at navigating the city than our cab driver… but don’t tell them that!
Luciano Floridi, best known as “Google’s Philosopher,” gives us this example to illustrate the way in which our “smart technologies” challenge us at the level of identity. (See "Lessons from Luciano Floridi, the Google philosopher") Our cab driver must face off with that app, and either accept that the app is better at navigating the streets, or else enter a state of denial.
(Traditionally, this role has been reserved for the Other in the problem of intersubjectivity - for example, the Other challenges our ordering of the objective world, its being there for us. Now it seems that “smart technology” is presenting us with a similar challenge.)
Joe Gelonesi, the Philosopher’s Zone’s presenter, remarks how: “We’re not just cogs operating the machine, we are now also its product and its messenger.” Whether the technology be the world wide web, the press, the locomotive, or fire for that matter, as Heidegger has taught us, the essence of technology is "en-framing." Historically, our frames of reference have shifted, our understanding de-centered and shaken loose. In Floridi’s terms,
First came the Copernican revolution where the earth was found to orbit around the sun, then Darwin’s theory of evolution to make monkeys of us, then Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious. And now we have what Luciano Floridi has named the “Fourth Revolution” in his new book by the same title : the digital revolution has brought with it the need to qualitatively analyze information.
Gathering data at a scale hereto unprecedented has not made knowledge understanding easier but harder. In fact, it becomes easier to see what patterns one wants to see, to reinforce bias. According to Floridi, data is data is data, and it’s nothing without an interpretive framework. As he puts it: “If anything, big data is generating a need for more well thought out questions.” It is the questions that we put to data that come to matter.
The fear, of course, is that machines animated by data will get to be smarter than humans and come to replace or challenge us as a species. (Let it be noted that the fantasy side of this fantasy/fear rubric is that man will be able to reproduce himself outside of the physical process of biological reproduction.) This is named the “existential risk” by our interlocutors:
“If machines can outsmart us at some thought processes, is there an ‘existential risk’ that machines will take over completely? Could we lose our sense of who we are on a personal level?”
This is a problem only in so far as we humans think of ourselves as thinking things or thinking machines, but this is a relatively new way of thinking about what it means to be human, a product of modern philosophy and the industrial revolution. But what if artificial intelligence de-centers that belief, and we face the question: If not a thinking thing, what else? What else are we “humans” capable of becoming?
Since we tend to think in binary opposites in the West, the first and most obvious answer (to the question of what comes after thinking) is to say that the pendulum is swinging in the direction of feelings or emotions, and perhaps empathy would rise in prominence. But arguably, simply affirming the opposite of the rational/emotional divide only serves to reinforce the dichotomy, and keeps us locked into the old framework.
Technically speaking, however, the operational dichotomy is the Cartesian one of mind/body, and it is true that the exploration of embodiment and spatiality has been underway since the middle of the Twentieth Century. (Mind/consciousness and time are correlates of matter/body and space in Western Metaphysics.) Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Lefebvre, Bachelard, and the birth of "social geography" all speak to increased interest in the study of space. Could we come to understand our human selves as embodied, spatial beings, and what how would this frame our possibilities going forward? AI is body-less, an intelligence created in an immaterial, invisible realm.
But there is a third, perhaps more radical possibility looming: that the very idea that what it means "to be" (i.e., human) can be reduced to a single framework becomes untenable. Can we (yet) imagine the situation where a common, underlying "human nature" is no more, a world in which there are different kinds of humans as well as differently embodied and disembodied forms of intelligence? Does disembodied intelligence (such as the super-computer that Google is rumored to be working on) have being, count as a being?
But Floridi's point is that this kind of challenge is a long way off, and that entertaining our fears about AI and computers taking over the world is a way of distancing ourselves from the real ways in which our smart technologies are already challenging our identities.
What do you think? We invite your comments below.
For Merleau-Ponty, any encounter with an Other is preceded by a pre-cognitive, pre-linguistic encounter with otherness in the form of anonymous others whom we encounter as a part of an objectively shared word. No longer there simply for me, the world and the things found therein immediately point us to their use value by others. Moreover, when these others appear, our objectively apprehended world gets sucked into their sphere of influence, and we loose our center. As Merleau-Ponty describes:
"Round about the perceived body a vortex forms, towards which my world is drawn and, so to speak, sucked in: to this extent, it is no longer merely mine, and no longer merely present, it is present to x, to that other manifestation of behaviour which begins to take shape in it. Already the other body has ceased to be a mere fragment of the world, and become the theatre of a certain process of elaboration, and, as it were, a certain ‘view’ of the world. There is taking place over there a certain manipulation of things hitherto my property. Someone is making use of my familiar objects. But who can it be? (411-12)
The other is a theater for the elaboration of a drama not of our own making. The mere existence of an Other takes us outside of our bodies and ourselves. As we are drawn into their world of concern, we forget ourselves and our concerns. We come to be out there in the world, and as Merleau-Ponty suggests, the world comes to inhabit us. in other words, the other doesn't just present us with the data of other consciousnesses like ours existing in the world, but the other affects us and acts upon us, as if love stricken.
The other is first of all perceived as a body, but this is no mere object. The lived body of subjects is characterized by the reversibility of being both object and subject simultaneously. (For example, think of how you can simultaneously grasp your own hand, and be both grasping and grasped.) A special kind of object, the lived body of the other exhibits behaviors much like our own. More specifically, it can leave marks and traces as vestiges, and produces the space in which it moves by shaping its environment. In a somewhat cryptic but very suggestive passage, Merleau-Ponty writes:
"The very first of all cultural objects, and the one by which all the rest exist, is the body of the other person as the vehicle of a form of behaviour. Whether it be a question of vestiges or the body of another person, we need to know how an object in space can become the eloquent relic of an existence; how, conversely, an intention, a thought or a project can detach themselves from the personal subject and become visible out- side him in the shape of his body, and in the environment which he builds for himself." (406)
As a cultural artifact (which means that it is produced through cultural means), the body of the other can be interpreted or read for its significance. The simplest way to understand this is to take the example of the athlete or the dancer, off of whose bodies we can read the athleticism and poise produced through the way they use their bodies. Their bodies are an expression of their life’s work. Or we may read the calloused worker's hands to mean that they world work with their hands. Even the lack of marks and traces says something about the other....
Furthermore, bodily attitudes communicate something about our psychological state - for example, if we are feeling defeated, we slump in our frames; when we are excited, our bodies exude with energy. If we are pricked, our facial expression and bodily wincing can communicate that sharp, sudden experience of pain. So bodies, like inert objects, can be “read” for the significance that they communicate against a cultural backdrop. In fact, our bodies may communicate and know what we have not (or cannot) consciously register, even against our wishes.
Finally, Merleau-Ponty here suggests that the environment in which we find ourselves and others is produced, in part, through the Other's activities in and through that space. We are not just sucked into a psychological vortex when we encounter others, but the vortex may well be physical, around a whirl of activity not our own. It is as if our bodies are pencils that leave marks and traces, and that shape the space we inhabit.
Our Encounter With Primordial Otherness Structures Our Subjectivities
Prior to conscious thought, prior to an exchange with a particular Other, the human world is there for us. There is no human world that does not always already include others, and it would be very difficult to imagine a meaningful world devoid of others. This is where Merleau-ponty makes his biggest move: primordial otherness structures my subjectivity because the other comes across as completing a system (or lifeworld, as Husserl would put it). Merleau-Ponty re-narrates the encounter with otherness as follows:
“I say that it is another, a second self, and this I know in the first place because this living body has the same structure as mine. I experience my own body as the power of adopting certain forms of behaviour and a certain world, and I am given to myself merely as a certain hold upon the world; now, it is precisely my body which perceives the body of another, and discovers in that other body a miraculous prolongation of my own intentions, a familiar way of deal- ing with the world. Henceforth, as the parts of my body together compromise a system, so my body and the other’s are one whole, two sides of one and the same phenomenon, and the anonymous existence of which my body is the ever-renewed trace henceforth inhabits both bodies simultaneously." (411-12)
Much like I recognize that all the parts of my body arranged in working order make up the unity I call my body, the hereto anonymous other forms a part of the unity of the world in which I find myself, and is in fact a necessary condition for my coming to consciousness as a subject.
In this way, Merleau-Ponty gets back behind Husserl's lifeworld to suggest a prior encounter with otherness as a condition for the possibility for subjectivity. We are not first of all distinct from this world and others, but form a unity with them from which we later come to separate out our own individual subjective sense of self. Any encounter with a specific Other has as its backdrop a primordial encounter with, or connection to otherness. (In Merleau-Ponty, a background is that against which interpretations can be made.)
Merleau-Ponty puts it most clearly in the following quote:
"Between my consciousness and my body as I experience it, between this phenomenal body of mine and that of another as I see it from the outside, there exists an internal relation which causes the other to appear as the completion of the system. The other can be evident to me because I am not transparent for myself, and because my subjectivity draws its body in its wake." (410)
And later he will add this:
“In reality, the other is not shut up inside my perspective of the world, because this perspective itself has no definite limits, because it slips spontaneously into the other’s, and because both are brought together in the one single world in which we all participate as anonymous subjects of perception." (411)
The word “imbricated” is often used to describe this situation, and this phenomenological description is meant to give a new starting point from which to overcome the problem of solipsism - of a subject that is shut up in itself, and the reality of whose world is in question precisely because it cannot be verified. Husserl preserves the subject/object inside/outside division intact in his account, a strategic solipsim he adopts in over to overcome it, but arguably his transcendental subject is never able to fully overcome the split. Merleau-Ponty overcomes the mind/body subject/object split by denying it outright, arguing that the body/self is simultaneously subject and object, and that “the world is wholly inside and I am wholly outside of myself.” (474)
Quotes Source: Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Routledge) 2005.
Today, we begin a new thinkPhilosophy podcast series on Intersubjectivity and the Problem of the Other in Continental Philosophy. I thought I'd take a few minutes to share with listeners an agenda for the series - keeping in mind that this plan remains open ended and is subject to feedback - let me know your thoughts in the comment box below.
As I mention in this week's podcast on Anne Fauto-Sterling's "Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough," this question animates her early work on sex variation and intersexuality:
Why are "we" in the West so culturally invested in maintaining that there are only two sexes, even though this belief goes against the rather obvious and regular phenomena of natural sex variation?
But this question is misleading because "our" cultural investment isn't really in two sexes, but in maintaining the One. The sex/gender system establishes the primacy of the male/masculinity against which female/femininity is posited as sheer negation: Man is rational, woman is irrational (or emotional); man is physically strong, woman is physically weak. (As Beauvoir puts it, man occupies both the positive and neutral positions, woman the negative one. ) These statements may in fact not be true (for example, many women are stronger than many men) but exclusivity nonetheless structures our thinking where it comes to questions of sex and gender. (Exclusivity is where identity is created through the exclusion of the other, by way of negation.) As Luce Irigaray has argued, in this sex/gender system there is no "woman" but only man and not-man.
Our investment in the One is not limited to questions of sex and gender, but it is rather a metaphysical and logical commitment to the One that dates all the way back to Presocratic philosophy and debates between Parmenides & Zeno and Heraclitus & Empedocles, with followers on each side. That is how far back one has to go to find the origins of our decision, in the West, to go with the One and the logic it entails. The One won the day and has dominated ever since, but those who uphold the multiplicity and infinity of being have constituted and alternative history of philosophy. Questions of difference, alterity, and the Other/otherness are ways of thinking against the homogeneity policed by the logic of the One.
As I see it, the problem is not limited to the subjugation of women and repression of sex variation, but is the larger problem of a constitutive inability to think difference beyond negation and exclusivity. We can see the same logic of domination at work in enforcing racialized regimes, for example. But why do we refuse to "believe our own eyes" and the multiplicity of our experience in the phenomenal world, and insist on taming this experience through the creation of falsifying knowledges and dogma. Our experiences are always filtered through our systems of belief, so we learn to literally not see difference. But it takes a lot of effort to maintain this state of affairs - and that is the good news, politically speaking.
In the upcoming series of podcasts, we'll be discussing inter-subjectivity and the Other - join us starting next week!
This week's thinkPhilosophy podcast episode was on "The Provocations of Existentialism," wherein we returned to Sartre's existentialist ideas and brought Sartre's ideas into contact with those of previous thinkers with whom we have engaged - namely Beauvoir and Appiah. This blog post is a written meditation on this podcast session, but before we get started, an apology:
After I posted the podcast session I realized that it was not only too long, but that I did engage in some rambling, so I went back and cut a tangential discussion on Kant and some other random parts. I wanted to shorten and make the main issues clearer. Unfortunately, I accidentally left in one mention of Kant that will seem rather random to listeners - please ignore this mention of Kant, and carry on!
Okay, now to the matter at hand: Why is Existentialism provocative?
In "Existentialism Is A Humanism," Sartre is most obviously provoking the religious (Catholic) French majority, including theist Existentialists, by repeatedly asserting Atheism at the heart of his Existentialism. Second, he is also provoking humanists not only by making a claim to being a humanist, but by redefining what lies at the heart of humanism - the belief in a common, underlying human nature as the basis for moral judgement. For Sartre, there is no such human nature that can be assumed, but any such agreement or commonality is an achievement of mankind and history. No doubt, Sartre's essay does continue to aggravate theists on the right and secular, liberal humanists.
But Sartre's Existentialism is and should be personally provocative to each and every one of us. How is this? Recall that the basic tenet of existentialism is that "existence precedes essence" and how this is explained: we are compelled to make choices in a situation where we cannot know the outcome or consequences in advance, and in making choices and acting in the world (or even if we do not!), we are not only choosing for ourselves, but for all of humanity.
It is at this point that existentialism should begin to make us uncomfortable. In a world where we have been taught to resolve our differences by saying "you have your way and i have mine, and we can simply agree to disagree," Sartre is peace wrecker. In choosing our ways and acting as we see fit, we foreclose other possibilities that are available to us, and in doing this we are judging between options as to what is best. That is, as Sartre makes very clear, we legislate for the world in which we wish to live with the affirmation and negations entailed in our choices and actions. This is no small matter.
This means that if you work at a soul sucking job but you rationalize it by saying that it gives you the comforts and security of a steady paycheck, you are legislating for, and creating a world in which it is okay for humans to spend the majority of their lives at work that is meaningless -- or worse, contraindicated by their values, interests, or otherwise harmful to the self, others, or the environment. You are choosing comfort and security in life over freedom, and in Hegel's terms, you are choosing and advocating for a "slave" mentality to predominate.
What does it mean to take responsibility in this situation? Existentialism cannot tell us what to do, but it can tell us to examine our choices and actions; and it also tells us that an appreciation of the contradictions of our lives will cause us to feel anxious. Feeling existential angst doesn't mean there is something wrong with us, but it means there is something right in our orientation. Sartre doesn't pull his punches, and it is at this point that you might decide it's okay to "shoot the messenger," as they say.
Recall also that he describes the despair generated by our human situation: we cannot know in advance that our choices are good or right. To take an example from our personal lives, this means that a person that you trust and love may end up betraying your trust and spitting on your devotion. This is so common that it is a wonder any of us ever trust and love one another. Given this, how can we trust ourselves to make good judgements, about a personal matter or otherwise? We cannot, and thus the despair we feel conditions our very existence.
The bottom line is that the world is largely indifferent to your success or failures. There is no one to care except that you care and it’s your life. And by extension, others who care about you care because you care. If you don’t care, no one else will nor can you expect anyone else to care. And that is the rub: it is your life.
Existentialism will either make you feel heavy and distrustful of yourself and others, or it will free you to live your life in the spirit of experimentation and in a mode of authentic self-reflection.
Sartre and Appiah
This essay is also provocative if you bring it into an encounter with Antony Appiah’s essay "But Would That Still Be Me?" They are actually talking about similar things, but they are also on different planets - that is, from the perspective of Sartre, Appiah’s question doesn’t even make sense. Remember that Appiah is looking for an underlying essence, that which perdures across significant personal change. He asks: would it still be me my sex, gender, race, or ethnicity were to change?
But for the existentialist, there is no essence to be sought prior to our living, choosing, and acting in the world. So whatever sex Appiah is assigned at birth, whatever gender he ends up adopting, these are not meaningful except in so far as they are chosen by, and become meaningful for him.
Sartre would probably say to Appiah: there is no essential identity prior to your existence; whatever "sex" (or the other categories) is, it is nothing outside of the world of human relations through which it acquires meaning. No one but us cares about human differences like sex, gender, race, and ethnicity, so these are human facts, not only or even primarily biological facts.
We can also give a critique of Sartre coming from the Appiah piece because Sartre uses “man” in the generalized sense that implies universality, but what if replaced that “man” in Sartre’s essay with “woman,” would it still be the same essay? Probably not, especially as we are not used to reading "woman" as a universal subject. Notice how immediately the assumed universality of Sartre's "man" is put into question as well.
What if we were to bring race and ethnicity in to the account? "Man" is not racially marked in Sartre’s account, so this means that it’s an unmarked man, which is to say an unproblematically “white” man to who Sartre addresses himself. Is this a problem for Sartre and Existentialism? Is this "man" every man, or does it refer to a very particular conception of masculinity that is premised on a "manly man's" will to power articulated as a domination of other men, women, children, animals, and nature?
Sartre and Beauvoir
When Beauvoir asserts that "one is not born but becomes a woman," she is reformulating the existential dictum that existence precedes essence. Contrary to popular belief, woman's being cannot be reduced to a biological essence or a feminine mystique. Her existence is also given meaning by the choices and actions she takes in the world, and it is in this sense that it is women's responsibility to think through women's existence in and through women's experiences - a task hereto undone. But Beauvoir's analysis in The Second Sex does also offer a critique of Sartre's assumption of "man" as the subject of existentialism:
Beauvoir points out that whereas "man" (the concept) carries a positive or neutral charge, the concept of woman is the negation of the concept of man. Where man is rational, woman is emotional; where man is strong, woman is the weaker sex; whereas man is transcendent, woman is defined by immanence. It is this latter comparison that is most problematic for Sartre's explanation of existentialism as a humanism.
Recall that, in the end, Sartre redefines finds the basis for humanism not with a common human nature, but with a common human situation, of man's existence in the Heideggerian sense of a temporal ek-stasis. We have examined Sartre's use of the Aristotelian concept of "essence," but we have yet to fully articulate his use of the Heideggerian conception of "existence," the second term in existentialism's basic tenet (existence precedes essence).
To this end, we will turn to examine "Part Four" of Heidegger's Being and Time in next week's podcast, so tune in next Tuesday March 10 for a continuing discussion!
In this week's podcast episode, we explored Jean-Paul Sartre's gem of an essay, "Existentialism Is A Humanism." In this essay, Sartre answers his critics on the political left and the religious right by explaining how existentialism does not lead to quietism, is optimistic rather than pessimistic, and does not reduce man to a solitary, solipsistic being. He explains the most basic tenet of existentialism: existence precedes essence. Along the way, he explicates the three moods that permeate existence - anguish (or existential angst), abandonment, and despair. In the end, we also took a closer look at his comments on intersubjectivity and man's self-surpassing. Below is a review of the content of this podcast, after which I want to make some further comments on the provocations of Existentialism.
Sartre’s “Existentialism Is A Humanism"
Sartre’s essay "Existentialism Is A Humanism" is based on a lecture that he delivered in Paris in October of 1945, right on the heals of the end of World War II. Much to his chagrin, it has become the most widely read of his works, as it provides readers with a great introduction to Existentialism. In it, we find Sartre answering his critics’ charges that:
Sartre begins his defense by making a distinction between theist and atheist existentialists, saying that some of the confusion about existentialism stems from confusing these. Atheist Existentialism, of which he is a representative, originates from the French reading of Heidegger’s Existential Phenomenology in Being and Time. (Other French readings of Heidegger will emerge, such as with Derrida’s poststructuralist account, or with Levinas’ account of the Other, but more on this in later podcasts and blogposts.) Sartre’s Existentialism takes it’s point of departure from the non-existence of any authority superior to mankind, i.e. God. But all existentialists agree on the basic tenet of existentialism that existence precedes essence. In order to understand the meaning of this, Sartre will need to school us on the artisanal model below.
“Existence Precedes Essence” Leading To Abandonment, Angst, and Despair
What it means for something to exist is normally taken from an artisanal model found in Aristotle’s Physics:
Following Heidegger’s most basic critique of Aristotle, according to which this understanding of being reduces being to things and embodies a technological view of the world in terms of production, Sartre will assert that unlike things produced in the world, there is no pre-given essence or end of man. That there is no God means that man is forlorn, abandoned to himself and his own freedom with no higher authority to justify his actions and choices. This sense of abandonment also leads to anguish (or existential angst) and despair. Below is a gloss of these three “moods” that permeate our human existence:
Despite the negative resonance of these moods, Existentialism is a rather optimistic philosophy. How is that? Because it gives man the power to create meaning for himself, and the permission to create, with others, man’s “nature” as a history of man’s best ideas and achievements. Sartre has also shown how his brand of existentialism does not lead to quietism, but is the greatest of encouragements to take ones’ choices and actions seriously, and to act on the basis of one’s convictions. It is action that defines man’s life, a direct contradiction of the quietist, apathetic person who lets others do what he sees himself as powerless to achieve. But it is the last charge that is most difficult to answer:
Intersubjectivity, and Sartre's Rejection of the Cartesian Cogito
The last charge against Existentialism is the most serious, and it proceeds from an unnamed kind of critic - that is, from other philosophers. That charge, you will recall, is that Existentialism takes man in isolation, that it is a “subjectivism.” Sartre answers this charge by pointing out that the subject taken up by existentialism is not the solipsistic, Cartesian subject, but the Hegelian subject that embodies within it’s own perspective a recognition of the Other, and the world that comes along with this recognition. Near the end of the essay, he writes:
Man’s subjectivity is one that includes within it the recognition of the Other, and through the other of an external world. Moreover, for the existentialist subject the problematic that frames his human existence is not Descartes’ question of “what can I know with certainty" (or, epistemology), but that of how action in the world defines my existence, and by extension, that of human kind.
Man' s Self-Surpassing
At this point, you may ask yourself: Has Sartre answered the question implied in the title of his essay: How is Exitentialism (or how could it be considered) a humanism. And this is where, I believe, things get a little scandalous. We find Sartre redefining the very meaning of humanism out from under the humanists themselves:
“But there is another sense of the word [humanism], of which the fundamental meaning is this: Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist; and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist. Since man is thus self-surpassing, and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing, he is himself the heart and center of his transcendence. There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe) – it is this that we call existential humanism. This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation (sic), that man can realize himself as truly human.”
According to traditional humanism, underneath all of our differences there lies a shared human “nature” that allows us to uphold common values and ideals. You don’t need God to tell you not to kill other men, if you can put yourself in another’s shoes and realize that you yourself value your life and would not wish to be killed. Human rights are based on just such a secular understanding of humanism.
But the other sense of humanism to which Sartre points here is arguably a much more radical view, and that is the idea of a shared human condition or situation. This situation is what Heidegger describes as being thrown in the world, what he describes as the ex-tasis and temporality of Being. But in order to understand this, we must turn to Being and Time.
Tune in on March 10th, 2015 for the first part of thinkPhilosophy podcast episode on Hediegger's Being and Time. Next week, on March 3rd, we'll expand this discussion with as session on "The Provocations of Existentialism."
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