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!