Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Existentialism is one of the main streams of late western philosophy, if not the main stream. Though it has many forms, Existentialism finally lays to rest the old conception of knowledge as the discovery of invariable essences and the articulation of this discovery as ‘absolute truth’. Some in the scientific community have yet to discover the provisional character of truth and continue searching for invariable principles behind the apparent repetitions of nature. But the philosophical foundations of the provisional conception of truth are secure. These are: the absence of any good philosophical reasons for believing that reality is intrinsically a group of repetitious phenomena determined by identifiable essential principles; and the absence of any language not tied to a purely relative frame of reference.

Western science is still mired in the Greek metaphysics that the Existentialists after Kierkegaard and Nietzsche rejected decisively. Anglo-Saxon (largely academic) philosophy has had its nose buried in logical analysis for most of the past century, but this concentration on technical matters, too, was imposed by the same anti-metaphysical tendency that characterised western thought at least from the time of David Hume and Immanuel Kant onwards. The striving to understand precisely what limited set of aims language and logic could be relied upon to achieve was the last remaining clean-up job of the sceptic.

The Existentialist philosophy based itself upon the belief that existence, far from emerging from eternal essences, was itself the origin of the whole notion of essence. No eternal, immutable essence dictates how the existent will turn out. Rather the opposite is the case. It Sartre’s famous slogan: existence precedes essence. What does that mean? Sartre used the phrase with reference to human existence, to the pour-soi. If one extends the principle to nature as a whole (as Existentialism broadly speaking does not) it means that the world, far from grinding through the possible permutations allowed by unchanging laws of nature, makes itself up as it goes along; and man, as a part of the world, does the same. It means that no understanding of human life in terms of any definitions of nature or of the human are possible. It is no longer possible to proceed as if the course of human life was mapped out according to some sort of ‘instructions for use’, set by who knows what agency, God, The Form of the Good, Natural Law, or whatever.

The opposite of the old Platonic-Aristotelian-Christian Essentialism with its insistence upon some sort of pre-existent ‘good’ giving meaning and direction to existence, is the thesis that human life is entirely free of any guidelines whatsoever, entirely free of prescriptions, entirely free of definitions, entirely free of typical characteristics, entirely free of repetitions. Typical physical characteristics are unimportant to the individual who is condemned to create him or herself. Within the Sartrean conception of human life, the individual is obviously all at sea. There is no sense of direction given by the body, since the body is simply a thing, an en-soi, and things have a completely different sort of existence from selves. Things just lie around being things. And Sartre seemed to have believed that naturalistic science gives a full account of these. Theirs is an uncomplicated and unquestioned form of existence. On the mechanistic hypothesis, they are keyed into the universal nexus of physical forces and operate in accordance with them. They have, in fact, no choice in the matter and do not need choice. The mechanical laws of nature look after that and their destiny is all necessity. Sartre’s dualism arises from an uncritical acceptance of the account contemporary naturalistic science gave him of the body and the inability of science to deal with the mind. The absolutely free individual self is utterly incomprehensible in terms of the body and the Sartrean free individual represents no more than an outraged revolt against the iron necessity of the deterministic, scientific account of the body.

Science examines and explains the thing-nature of bodies and pays no attention at all to the self, since the self is not a thing. In scientific terms, the self has no existence, except as an aspect of the body; and therefore it obviously has no meaning. The result is that the self – which is firmly convinced that it exists and not able to be convinced by arguments to the contrary – is obliged to carve out its own conception of meaning for itself. It is obliged to create its own meaning in a world of things that does not cater for it, that has no place for it and that cannot even assent to its existence. In short, the existing self has to create itself and in creating itself, i.e. in existing, it has to arrive by its own efforts at its own nature. It is for these reasons that Sartre announced that existence precedes essence. We as humans exist before we are forced to find out what we are.

The upshot of this philosophy is a pervading sense of non-sense, non-meaning, non-value, non-identity that the great existentialist philosopher Heidegger refers to as Geworfenheit or ‘thrownness’. We are thrown into a universe that has no place for us, that cares not a hang for us and for our preoccupations, that is composed entirely of insensible objects and nothing else and that rolls on according to the laws of physics in complete disregard of the human self.

But as we have been at pains to stress in other contexts, this histrionic-tragic wailing about the lack of meaning has its origin in an unwarranted surrender to and uncritical swallowing of the prevailing mechanistic-deterministic-materialistic ideology of the scientific world-view and the thing-ideology. Obviously, if this mechanistic stuff is taken seriously, if the scientific method (i.e., the sorts of things it allows to exist) is considered to be an ontology rather than merely a procedure, considered to be the way things are in themselves rather than the way we look at them, then any entity that does not fit into its system is made nonsensical by that very fact. This is the characteristic of any codified or systematised scheme of thought that seeks complete internal coherence: it operates by setting the rules for what is to be included and what is to be excluded and proceeds by including what confirms the overall coherence and by excluding what would damage that coherence. We do not need to proceed this way, but as soon as we regard our knowledge as some sort of complete or perfect truth, then we will operate in this essentially totalitarian manner. We will deny the facts in order to save the theory. There is something deeply human about that practice.

Thus the Existentialists, though convinced that the dynamics of the self – from which the philosophy starts – could not be accounted for by the scientific approach to reality, nevertheless accepted the scientific picture of the world in terms of which the self and its dynamics were nonsensical and had no place in the universe. They had no real reason to do this apart from their bowing to the cultural dominance of the scientific approach to reality that had replaced the religious picture of the world. Nietzsche, though aware of the limits of scientific knowledge, was nevertheless brow-beaten in a similar fashion. If the Existentialists had extended the ‘existence precedes essence’ idea to the universe as a whole (by denying the existence of ‘laws of nature’), that would have allowed them to consider nature as a creatively not to say intelligently dynamic whole in which the human has its creative, intelligent place. In ditching determinism on the macrocosmic scale, they would have diffused its consequences for the microcosm. In this way, Existentialism would have found itself closer to Kierkegaard than to Nietzsche.

It never occurred to the Existentialists seriously to question the prevailing naturalistic ideology, even though a perfectly good critique of scientism was present in the writings of the fathers of the movement. It never occurred to the Existentialists that if human existence can be given no meaning and is absurd in terms of the materialistic-mechanistic dogma, then that does not necessarily mean that human existence has no meaning. Logically, it could just as well mean that the latter dogma has no meaning. But harping on the theme of the absurdity of human life allowed the Existentialists the pathos of striking grand tragic poses, allowed them to indulge in the delicious dramatic bravado of the little man against the hostile universe. It allowed a very gratifying defiance: little Sisyphus taking on the bullying gods and beating them by demonstrating the grandeur of his weakness. But like the mechanistic world-view that spawned it, Existentialism was destined to wither away with the changing climate of thought in the post-scientific age. It began to occur to quite ordinary people that the scientific denial of the self and of its dynamics was simply another piece of authoritarian nonsense. It did not have to be believed. Indeed, it couldn’t be believed. The scientists can insist upon their ‘proofs’ until they are blue in the face, if these fail to convince, they fail to convince; and that does not necessarily indicate stupidity on the part of those rejecting those proofs.

So what are the alternatives? How does human existence become more than a simple exercise in mock-heroics? How do we progress beyond the ‘anything goes’ philosophy that urges us simply to make our lives up as we go along and make them into anything at all? The simple fact is that the Existentialists did not fundamentally believe that ‘anything goes’. The movement spawned more sects than Protestantism. They managed to argue for all kinds of very traditional-sounding value systems. They embraced versions of Christianity, Judaism, Socialism and other ethical codes. Even when they professed to reject all traditional value systems, they managed to argue, illogically for the most part, for decency and niceness and helpfulness to others. The basic reason for this is that the nihilism that is never far away from Existentialism can not in fact be sustained. Everyone knows that the Gidean acte gratuit is a piece of pretentious nonsense. It is a sterile adolescent pose. Everyone in the end turns away from a philosophy that intones ceaselessly that ‘nothing has any more value than anything else’. Various spin-offs from nihilism were tried, anarchism, egoism, irrationalism and other intellectual dead-ends; but the human minds craves structure and meaning and will not do without it, will have it whatever the arguments against it. Moreover, the human mind will always conceive of this meaning in terms of integration of the individual existent into a system that transcends, enlarges and subsumes individuality. Human existence was made meaningless in the universe by so restrictive a view of that universe that it could not accommodate the human mind, let alone the human soul. Abolish this system as outdated, and you abolish the principal problems of Existentialism: the divorce between the en-soi and the pour-soi.

And this system is indeed outdated. The thing-ideology was responsible for alienating the human self from the world. It replaced the human self with the fixed, goggling eye of the ‘propertyless observer’ of scientism – i.e. by absolute nonsensical piffle. The mechanistic-materialistic-deterministic dogma with its obsession with three-dimensional objects forced the human mind out of nature except as the ‘objective’ observer (who does not really exist). But this was a piece of self-deceptive fiction. Science has never been driven forward by bloodless, characterless, emotionless observers. It has always been driven forward by the emotions of passionate people, real persons, animated by the desire to slake their curiosity and to find answers in precise terms to all their questions. Human existence is a constant and passionate probing of reality, a constant interrogation of it. Our intelligence is a combination of reason and emotion. We do not probe reality dispassionately like robots; we do it because it is our deepest wish to discover its meaning. The thing-ideology was extremely powerful and influential for many decades and considered to be the definitive answer to this interrogation; but its influence began to wane and with it the problems of Existentialism, the anomalies of existence, began to appear as distortions created by the ideology rather than coherent philosophy.

The thing ideology shut man out of the universe and made everything that renders his life worthwhile, nonsensical. The atomisation of human life, the fragmentation and alienation, the Angst-ridden, sport-, money- and celebrity-obsessed modern psyche was entirely the creation of the thing-ideology. Replace the thing-ideology by a science that views the whole of reality as a co-ordinated and seamless totality, in which man has his place, mind and all, and you get rid, at a stroke, of the so-called problem of existence. Existence means something like ‘standing out from a background’ and that is what happened to man as a consequence of the thing-ideology: he stuck out from the mechanistic universe of things like a sore thumb. It took us some time to realise that the problem was not with man, but rather with the theory. But we have realised that and now existence is looking like having more benign features than we suspected, though we are still terrified of the possibility of disappearing without trace into the dark embrace of matter in death.

It looks as if there is indeed a place for us in the universe, as though we are indeed at home in it. We may not have the old essentialism; but we have our place in the order of things. Our intelligence is conceivably an aspect of the overall intelligence of nature. The mind is part of nature, but it is also in a sense above nature insofar as nature is viewed as a collection of objects. If we ditch our obsessive belief in the primacy of the 3D object, the mind (as indeterminate intelligence) can view itself as transcending the brain (as determined thought). The mind can comprehend itself as part of the universal, undetermined and meaningful movement that is the uninterrupted process of universal creation. We don’t know how this proceeds but we can now begin to avoid all preconceptions and simply accept ourselves as self-conscious aspects of the indeterminate, universal creative process. We are far beyond naturalism, but we are in no danger of falling back into the trap of na├»ve teleology, arrogantly assuming we understand the ‘goal’ of natural processes. Traditional modes of harmonising mind and world are nonetheless coming back into focus.

Meditation of the ancient Buddhist type, we are beginning to realise, has its own observable regularities, including a powerful ability to re-integrate the mind, to centre it and to focus it. There are forces in the self, we now realise, that are analogous to the self-healing forces of the flesh. Existence is no longer a matter of sticking out like a sore thumb in a world of objects in which we have no place. Existence is now considered to be a process of dynamic interaction with a system – the world – that brought us into being, that is vastly more resourceful that we with our rational intellect will ever be, that can be credited with an intelligence of which ours is only a faint reflection. We must broaden our understanding of intelligence and see it as more than mere rule-following: we should understand it as almost synonymous with indeterminate creative innovation. Existence now is gradually being transformed by the perception that we and our intelligence belong in the world, that we both create it and are created by it in its ceaseless production of novelty. Our job, in these terms, is not to think ourselves up, not to work out the rule for hoisting ourselves by our own bootstraps, but rather to let ourselves be created by the ceaseless creativity of Creation. Intelligently to create and intelligently to be created are one and the same thing. Our crazy desire to dominate the world on the basis of shaky beliefs has turned out to be an unsustainable piece of madness. The old belief in the rational ego as master of the universe and new god on the block has to go.

We are not masters of the universe. How could we be, latecomers to the party that we are? The old idea that man is somehow different from the rest of nature is on the wane. With this old idea went notions of rational domination that could simply not be perpetuated. The idea that the rational intellect was all-powerful and all-dominant, and its methods exclusively and absolutely valid, brought us to the thing-ideology and to the consequent feeling of the absurdity of human life. The new scientific paradigm that is dawning, though it will be as provisional as all others, nevertheless sees scientific knowledge as only one type of knowledge and as being far from absolute in any sense. It sees our knowledge as part of the universal flow, as part of the creativity of the universal flow and it views our intellect, our emotions, the very dynamics of our self as integral parts of the universal, creative, intelligent flow. This is not cruddy mysticism, it is simply the most rational account of the fact of human life as we know it. If it is part of the process of universal creativity that has produced all the wonders of the natural world, then human existence, far from being absurd, is consummately meaningful. But let us not be under any illusion: ‘meaningful’ does not necessarily mean ‘comfortable’. The human subject as finite existent is precisely that: subject. That is to say, the opposite of master. But there is more going on in the subject than we tend to allow ourselves to believe.