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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Existentialism Part 1: Faith and the Unproven Theorem that Existence Precedes Essence

Existentialism is often defined under the auspice that existence precedes essence. The implication of such a sweeping statement is that humans are born into this world, nature-less of course, and that we assign the most basic values to the world outside of us. We label, give these items names and a sort of hierarchical essence, assigning essential value to the universe around us. In that sense one could say that name precedes the essence of others-- perhaps one of the reasons that existentialists and postmodernists pay lavish, though often quiet, attention to linguistics. Existentialists argue what this ultimately means is that there is no rational order to existence.

As an example, Jean-Paul Sartre writes in his novel Nausea "They made it [a seat in a streetcar] purposely for people to sit on, they took leather, springs, and cloth, they went to work with the idea of making a seat and when they finished, that was what they had made."

Yet later: "I murmur: it's a seat... but the word stays on my lips: it refuses to go and put itself on the thing. It stays what it is. with its red plush, thousands of little red paws in the air, all still, little dead paws. This enormous belly, turned upward, bleeding, inflated--- bloated with all its dead paws, this belly floating in this car, in this grey sky, is not a seat. It could as well be a dead donkey tossed into the water... and I could be sitting on the donkey's belly, my feet dangling in the clear water."

This small quotation encapsulates a great deal of existentialist and some postmodernist tenets including the importance of language in defining reality, the coddled fixation upon angst, the self-awareness and self-importance it champions and more. But the the power it holds and illustrates is the dislocation of reality when divorced from the rational. Reality abruptly becomes the world through the looking-glass, an odd distortion beyond the realm to identify and, for the existentialist, control.

When I was a sixteen-year-old and read that excerpt for the first time, I remember experiencing a profound sense of vertigo. While sitting on a concrete bench in the park by my high school, I felt the world pitching and rolling, my stomach dropping and yawning empty, as if on a boat in languidly rough seas. It was a curious feeling, one that I have never forgotten. Those words, beyond the dead paws and bloated donkey imagery, terrified me in a way that I thought at the time was most profound. It was as if the awesome nature of reality had finally been revealed to me, and the absurdity (another existentialists' handy go to word) of it all was horrifying.

Of course, that was precisely the reaction Sartre had carefully planned for the reader. Naive, arrogant, rebellious, losing faith in my religion, near the very beginning of my philosophical trek and looking for quick answers, well-convinced of my own unique genius and smugly self-assured in the integrity of my quest for truth, I was the near-perfect audience for Sartre's work. Like many people, I was enthralled by this glimmer of unabashed "truth."

Unfortunately, I had taken the generally insincere "question authority" quip far too earnestly. Instead of accepting Sartre's presumptions and philosophies, allowing it to internalize and imprint themselves indelibly into my thoughts and writing (which probably would have resulted in a much easier and more agreeable college life), I questioned the logic of Sartre, examined the presumptions, scrutinized the chains of thought and logic that his theories entail.

To deny the power of existentialism is foolish. Even reaching beyond the vogue and trendy adulation of career savvy academicians, the ideas themselves hold a great, dark appeal. It's not unlike the attractiveness of slasher films-- being compelled by what is supposed to be repugnant, being attracted by what is supposed to be repellent. These feelings give an illusion of freedom. By defying the expectations of what we are "supposed to do" and confronting or even embracing that which we feel (for whatever reasons) obliged to avoid, we feel the thrill of rebellious autonomy.

note: I an not using postmodernist and existentialist interchangeably. I argue from the perspective, though I offer no evidence here, that existentialism falls under the vast umbrella of postmodernist thought-- while existentialism is a postmodernist philosophy, postmodernism does not necessarily mean existentialist-- therefore an existentialist is necessarily postmodernist. One can argue endlessly about the exact relationship between existentialism and postmodernism, but it is both foolish and inauthentic to deny the closeness of the debated relationship.

Yet, does existentialism actually offer any genuine, revealing and great truths in itself? The answer is no.

Existentialism has become synonymous with what it purports to hate-- religion. It has also become a shill for Marxist oppression, rather ironic considering the postmodernist preoccupation with oppression, but that is for a different post. It is religious in the sense that it takes its tenets based upon faith rather than logic or proof.

Take for instance the existentialists' defining assertion that man is without essence, a wholly faith-based assertion. It it important to understand that the essence that the existentialist addresses is not necessarily based in mainstream religious faith, nor even in religion at all. Essence can be fairly accurately translated as nature. A philosophy espousing or decrying humanity's return to nature (in whatever way) must embrace first a belief in the existence of a nature (which the existentialist denies) and second the belief that nature is either good (e.g. Charles Dickens' work and humanist philosophies) or evil (e.g. Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"). However such a philosophy is not necessarily based in a religion. The ethical concepts of good and evil, or watered down right and wrong, that allow for a moral definition of human nature need not be based in religious belief or doctrine. They need only some sort of value system to provide a structure to allow ethical judgement.

So with this in mind, let us examine Sartre's argument that existence precedes essence. Famously, Sartre used the example of the paper-knife to illustrate his point. Paraphrasing Sartre, the paper-knife is an instrument designed with a function in mind. Its shape, form, appearance, and judgement of functionality (whether it is a good paper-knife or not) is based upon the the purpose that the paper-knife was to perform-- its essence. In that way, the paper-knife's essence preceded its existence. Sartre then says man is not like this and then simply allows this assertion to lie. He does not offer an analogy as to what man is like.

Probably one of the reasons that Sartre does this is because it is would be impossible to find an example of something that has no essence as he himself defines it. Any man-made object would be excluded by definition. A natural object such as an oak tree exists in the form that we perceive because of evolved responses to its environment and one could argue that its essence is either likewise a result of this evolution, or that its essence is shown in this form as survival. A non-living entity, such as a rock, exists because of various dynamic factors that shapes its form, such as weathering, pressure, heat, or any myriad of other natural forces. In this way, a rock's form is determined by outside pressures (although they may be utterly indifferent and unconscious) and does not present a good sense of analogy to the concept of an essence-less human being.

note: This argument has nothing to do with the levels of consciousness spelled out in Sartre's Being and Nothingness. It is instead an attempt to show the impossibility of an essence-less existence.

By saying that an item is not something, doesn't indicate what the item is. Knowing that a table is not a pound of air does not tell us what a table is-- it only excludes from what the table can be. Likewise proving the truth of an abstract concept cannot be done through negation, unless you negate everything-- not merely the concept's antithesis.

What we are left with is an empty analogy. The paper-knife metaphor tells us nothing about essence-less existence, nor does it disprove the existence of essence (which was not its original intention but becomes a requirement). All it does is narrow the definition of human essence to the criteria Sartre defines and then denies that anything with such criteria exists. Sartre then proceeds as if he has in fact denied the full range of meanings bound to the concept of human essence. This is a common trick of a rhetorician, often employed [though by no means exclusively] by Obama.

What Sartre is actually trying to do is to deny the basis of any structure of a morality being tied into nature, e.g. Aristotle's conviction that man's purpose is to function as he is naturally intended. For Sartre's "nausea" to have any significant meaning beyond the simple dislocation of man's metaphysical place in the world (old hat by the time of Sartre), he must present the entire world as "nauseous," i.e. the world outside the conscious being must be dislocated. The only way this universal dislocation can truly be realized is by means of an empty arbitrary universe. And this can only be accomplished according to tenets of religious faith.

There is no proof of an empty, arbitrary universe, nor can there be (for if truth were divulged through a revelation of some sort this would nullify the emptiness), only supposition rendered and interpreted by the self. Simple faith then becomes requisite to the proposition-- in this case faith that the self's nausea and fear (regardless of its genuineness) is correct. In this sense, existentialism becomes a supremely humanist religion.

After constructing for so long the helplessness, powerlessness, and foolishness of man, it seems rather abrupt for existentialism to suddenly invest in man the sole means to truth. But this is what existentialism is. What might be more shocking, at least to me, is the fact that it purports to accomplish this without a scrap of either evidence or cohesive logic-- that comes later as existentialism builds its great cathedrals of absurdity and nausea. For now it is simple faith, invested in man, that claims that truth can be arrived at and definitively interpreted. This faith is a central tenet, and the foundation of existential thought.

UPDATE: Check out Jordan's post "Everything Means Nothing: My Existentialist Journey" over at Generation Patriot.

1 comment:

  1. I am also a former follower/believer/confused reader of Sartre and existentialism. After reading this, I'm planning on a brother post to yours, a fellow story on how youth, arrogance and a egoistical French philosopher spun my head and made me even more annoying than before.