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.
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
*Adapted from Martin Jay, Adorno
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).
French: problematic, complex of problems, or problem-set.
modernity, postmodernism, subjectivity, personal identity, religion,
meaning, history, art, music, tradition, culture, etc.
B. The Historical Matrix of
Existentialism: Critical Response and Reconstruction
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
Critique of the Historical Tradition
A. Rejection of Traditional Speculative Metaphysics
(From Plato to Hegel, or 5th-century BC to the early 19th
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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
perfectibility of modern man (Enlightenment myth)
instrumental reason devoid of values and goals
privilege of the subject-object epistemological relationship with the
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
Existentialism 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
The primacy of human existence (the existing
individual) is affirmed against any absolute, universal, fixed, pregiven
Being-in-the-world (Heidegger’s phrase used here in a general
a) Facticity, finitude,
being-in-situation (anti-rationalistic), temporality, historicity,
embodiment, others, tradition, etc.
b) Critical dissolution of modern dualisms fragmenting the individual
- (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
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.
(German): anxiety, anguish relating to freedom, meaning, self, etc.
ekstasis: Greek, standing out, going beyond
- Concrete possibility
4. Authenticity and Inauthenticity
herd, masses, “the anonymous they” (Heidegger’s German Das Man)
and the “courage to be” (Tillich’s expression)
personal project, ultimate concern