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EXISTENTIALISM
WHAT IS EXISTENTIALISM?
An Interpretive Profile


 

A. Interpretive Models

1. The Classical Model of Philosophical Definition: Inaugurated with Aristotle’s categorical distinction between genus and species, perceives an identical form or basic structure among dissimilar things (broadly interpreted, any kind of object, event, or entity). It opposes any premature, provincial, restrictive definition of the subject that excludes what is initially foreign, alien, or unfamiliar. It is a conceptual way of thinking that perceives structural (formal) identities or similarities between otherwise dissimilar things.

Example: After viewing, over a period of time, the sun, the moon, car tires, bicycle wheels, coins, Frisbees, baseballs, and dinner plates, a child realizes that they all express or exhibit the same shape. In other words, these objects are formally identical (same form, shape, structure) although they are concretely different (in their specific or particular content). This type of thinking is called abstract because the reasoning agent abstracts (separates out, extracts) the general, common form from the several objects that embody, express, or exhibit it. Accordingly, these diverse objects, despite specific differences, are all members of the class of circular things.

2. Family Resemblance: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1889-1951) concept of definition. Such a definition, in contrast to the classical model of definition (see below), composes an interwoven set of similarities (like the similar facial features of family members) that lack a common denominator or essential core characteristic shared by every member of the class (like family members that don’t share one identical feature in common).

Example: As a college student, you see many new faces the first week of a new school year. Someone in your French class looks a little like someone in your History course, who looks a little like someone in your Political Science class. Later in the semester you discover that two of them are brothers and the third is a cousin. In contrast to a strictly formal identity, we could say these three individuals exhibit a structural kinship, i.e., similarities that are not reducible to a singular characteristic.

3. Force-field: German, Kraftfeld. Theodor W. Adorno’s (1903-1969) interpretive metaphor or model for the subtle relations between and among distinguishable dimensions (subjective and objective, particular and universal, historical and natural) of cultural and social phenomena. A force-field is a relational interplay of attractions and aversions that constitute the dynamic, transmutational structure of a complex phenomenon.*

4. Constellation:
Adorno’s astronomical metaphor-model, borrowed from Walter Benjamin ( ), to signify a juxtaposed—rather than integrated—cluster of changing elements that resist reduction to a common denominator, essential core, or generative first principle. Richard Bernstein has productively applied this interpretive model to the complex interconnections between modernity and postmodernism.*

*
Adapted from Martin Jay, Adorno (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

5. Problématique: French: problematic, complex of problems, or problem-set.

Examples: language, modernity, postmodernism, subjectivity, personal identity, religion, meaning, history, art, music, tradition, culture, etc.

B. The Historical Matrix of Existentialism: Critical Response and Reconstruction

Matrix: Generally, something that constitutes the point or place from which something else originates, takes shape, or develops; the generative soil from which something else grows. Its archaic meaning was womb, a concrete (particular, specific) term that has been expanded into an abstract concept (general, formal, structural) over the centuries. The term matrix has a variety of context-specific usages, including anatomical, biological, metallurgical, mathematical, linguistic, and print-set usages. In our context it obviously bears a historical meaning.

I) Critique of the Historical Tradition

A. Rejection of Traditional Speculative Metaphysics
(From Plato to Hegel, or 5th-century BC to the early 19th century)

Speculative Metaphysics: A traditional Western philosophical ideal, practiced from Plato to Hegel, that attempts to reduce the multiplicity of all phenomena to the unity of an ultimate reality behind or beyond the world of appearances (this finite, empirical world). Accordingly, speculative metaphysics tends to be dualistic (reality is fundamentally divided into two hierarchically ordered realms), although there are monistic (reality is fundamentally one) exceptions (Parmenides, Spinoza) that “prove the rule.” Actual, permanent, true reality is above, beyond, or behind the transitory, multiple, finite, phenomenal appearances of this world.

a) Absolutism: Transcendent, trans-cultural, universal, ultimate foundations of meaning, value, and truth that are claimed to be metaphysically independent: extra-mental objectivity, absolute, unconditioned, intrinsically real, etc.

1. Traditional Western monotheism (Kant termed this theological-philosophical paradigm “onto-theology”)
2. Plato’s dualistic, metaphysical idealism (the theory of ideal Forms)
3. Epistemic foundationalism (Aristotle, Descartes)

Cf. Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) well-known and controversial parable The Madman, in The Gay Science (1882), #125, on the famous phrase “God is dead."

b) Essentialism: Metaphysical primacy of a pregiven or fixed essence, nature, or substance.

1. Man is the image of God (Biblical religions)
2. Man is the rational animal (Latin, animal rationale) (Classical Greek, Hellenistic, Medieval, and Modern philosophy)
3. Man is a thinking thing (Latin, res cogitans) distinct from his body (Latin, res extensa) (Descartes)

c) The Spectator Attitude: high-altitude thinking (Maurice Merleau-Ponty), dispassionate vantage point, God’s eye view, disengaged observer perspective (Jürgen Habermas); Latin, sub specie aeternitatis, from the standpoint of eternity (cf. Baruch Spinoza); the project of a pure, presuppositionless theoretical starting point above or beyond contingent historical conditions.

d) Philosophical Totalism: The ideal of a closed, complete, finished system that accounts for everything, including itself (Spinoza).

e) Summary: Philosophers within the orbit of existentialism and other 19th and 20th-century philosophical movements (Lebensphilosophie, Marxism, Critical Theory, Hermeneutics, Phenomenology, post-empiricist analytical philosophy, American neo-pragmatism, etc.) strongly criticize traditional metaphysics for its denial of finitude, ahistorical thinking, idealistic otherworldliness, epistemological preoccupation, etc.

B) Critique of European Modernity and Enlightenment

1. Modern Scientific Worldview
(Weltanschauung): Max Weber’s famous “disenchantment of the world,” (anomie, homelessness, estrangement, alienation, feeling uprooted). The inherently meaningful nature of the world is rejected in favor of the scientific objectification of nature into quantifiable objects, determined by impersonal natural laws, and consequently utilized—exploited?—by science and technology.

2. Modern Centralized State and Society: This type of social and political centralization is criticized for its “leveling” or “reductionistic” effects upon individuals, freedom, and authenticity, resulting in the emergence of an alienated, atomistic, isolated, and insular form of abstract individualism. Also, it leads to social fragmentation, tensions, or divisions.

3. Modern Humanism and Rationalism

  • Progress and perfectibility of modern man (Enlightenment myth)
  • Calculative, instrumental reason devoid of values and goals
  • Primacy and privilege of the subject-object epistemological relationship with the world
  • Technological and industrial contributions to dehumanization and alienation


4. Modern Dualisms or Abstractions: abstract dichotomies as sources of self-alienation, social estrangement, and cultural homelessness.

a) Subject versus object: the epistemological (cognitive, knowledge relation) primacy of the S-O relationship to the world. Characterized by theoretical objectification, calculative control, technological mastery, the spectator attitude, and so-called scientific neutrality.

b) Mind versus body: Descartes’ anthropological dualism and consequent epistemological solipsism (the egocentric predicament)

c) Fact versus value: Abstract Positivism (bifurcation of concrete, experiential reality into an antithetical opposition or dichotomy)

d) Reason versus passion: Abstract rationalism

e) Self versus society: Abstract individualism

CExistentialism as An Affirmative, Constructive, Positive Philosophical Project

1.
Critical Appropriation of Ancient Philosophical Ideals or Projects:

  • Philosophy as a way of life (Presocratics, Socrates, Stoics, Skeptics, Epicureans, etc.)
  • Ontology: the study of being (Aristotle)

 
2. The primacy of human existence (the existing individual) is affirmed against any absolute, universal, fixed, pregiven essence (anti-essentialism)

3. Being-in-the-world (Heidegger’s phrase used here in a general existential sense)

a) Facticity, finitude, being-in-situation (anti-rationalistic), temporality, historicity, embodiment, others, tradition, etc.
b) Critical dissolution of modern dualisms fragmenting the individual and society:

  • (Modern S-O dichotomy) Primacy, priority of lived relationship with the world; ‘always already’ engaged (pre-theoretical involvement) with things, others, etc.
  • (Modern mind/body dichotomy) Incarnate consciousness, the lived body, embodied engagement
  • (Modern fact/value dichotomy) Experiential world as already replete with significance, value, utility, and worth. Primacy of concrete encounter with ‘things’ as already imbued with value and meaning. Descriptive and evaluative elements as inextricably interwoven in concrete experience
  • (Modern reason/passion dichotomy) Reciprocal interdependence and concrete mutuality of reason (understanding, cognition, belief, judgment) and passion (desire, feeling, affectivity, mood); Mood or attunement (Heidegger, German: stimmung,), vital reason (José Ortega y Gasset)
  • (Modern self/society dichotomy) Being-with-others; primacy of social and communal being over an artificial, abstract, alienating, and atomistic antagonism between self/society.


3.
Freedom and authentic selfhood as task, project, ideal, process and responsibility. The existing individual (Kierkegaard’s expression) is not a pregiven and fixed state, nature, or essence.

  • Angst (German): anxiety, anguish relating to freedom, meaning, self, etc.
  • Transcendence; ekstasis: Greek, standing out, going beyond
  • Concrete possibility
  • Being-toward-death


4.
Authenticity and Inauthenticity

  • Self-alienation
  • The crowd, herd, masses, “the anonymous they” (Heidegger’s German Das Man)
  • Responsibility and the “courage to be” (Tillich’s expression)
  • Fundamental personal project, ultimate concern

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