David C. Wood is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy and Professor of European Studies at Vanderbilt University. Interview by…
Existentialist philosophers teach us that we alone are responsible for creating a meaningful life in an absurd and unfair world.
Standing on a cliff, a sense of disorientation and confusion cloud you. Not only are you afraid of falling, you also fear succumbing to the impulse of throwing yourself off. Nothing is holding you back. Dread, anxiety and anguish rise to the surface.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes this as a case of “existential angst” because here, at the cliff face, you are experiencing your own freedom first-hand. You can do whatever you please – move forward into the yawning abyss or remain where you are. It’s up to you. The realisation that you have absolute freedom to decide the course of your life – jump or don’t jump – is as dizzying as vertigo, explains Kierkegaard, who suggests that we face the same anxiety in all of life’s choices. Every action we take is a choice, decided upon by us and no one else.
Kierkegaard’s argument that life is a series of choices – and that these choices bring meaning (or not) to our life – is a cornerstone of existentialism. Rather than offloading the responsibility onto society or religion, each individual is solely responsible for making their life meaningful and living it authentically.
The subject of authenticity was a favourite of German philosopher Martin Heidegger: why is it that when faced with death our daily projects seem meaningless? A friend or relative dies and this will propel us on a new course; we quit our job and in turn stop worrying about everyday concerns and start taking an interest in areas that we had previously ignored.
In his book, Being and Time, Heidegger suggests that the meaning of our being must be tied up with time. We are temporal beings – born into a world that existed before us with its religion and culture, its history already written, and to make sense of this world we engage in various pastimes to get by. We might have a family, build a career or a house, and in doing so we place ourselves on a trajectory towards some sort of future. But there’s a limit to our projects, a point at which everything comes to an end, whether finished or unfinished, and that limit is our death. This is what Heidegger calls “beingtowards- death”.
However we are so absorbed by our pastimes and distractions that we simply forget that there’s an outermost limit to our pursuits; and in so doing, says Heidegger, we live an inauthentic life. It’s not until we project our lives onto the horizon of our death that authentic life can be found.
Authenticity and the media
Kierkegaard argues that the news prevents people from living authentically; it is an intervening agency, blocking our way to true experiences. Mass culture creates a loss of individual significance, which he calls levelling. According to Kierkegaard, instead of engaging in authentic thought by forming our own opinions, most of us passively adopt the opinions constructed by the news.
Reality exists in action
French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre tells us that we’re alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of infinite responsibilities. We have no other purpose than the one we set ourselves; no other destiny than the one we forge.
Yet many of us remain in denial of our responsibilities, writes Sartre. We fall into bad faith, deceiving ourselves about this radical freedom. In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre is blunt and unforgiving. “Our doctrine horrifies people,” he asserts. “They have no other way of putting up with their misery than to think: ‘Circumstances have been against me, I deserve a much better life than the one I have. Admittedly, I have never experienced a great love or extraordinary friendship; but that is because I never met a man or woman worthy of it; if I have written no great books, it is because I never had the leisure to do so; if I have had no children to whom I could devote myself, it is because I did not find a man with whom I could share my life. So I have within me a host of untried but perfectly viable attributes, inclinations and possibilities that endow me with worthiness not evident from examination of any of my past actions.’
“But for existentialists there is no love other than the deeds of love… there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art; the genius of Proust resides in the totality of his works; the genius of Racine is found in the series of his tragedies, outside of which there is nothing.
“No doubt this thought may seem harsh to someone who has not made a success out of his life. But on the other hand, it helps people to understand that reality alone counts, and that dreams, expectations and hopes only serve to define a man as a broken dream, aborted hopes and futile expectations; in other words, they define him negatively, not positively.”
For Sartre, we are nothing other than the sum of our actions.
The first principle of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, meaning that unlike an egg timer that’s created for the purpose of cooking an egg, human beings have no particular purpose. It is only through our actions that we later start defining what our purpose in life is going to be. “Man is nothing other than his own project,” he writes.
Yet, like mere physical objects, humans deceive themselves into thinking that they are predestined to be what they are, shifting the responsibility of their actions onto others or onto a moral code. Reality exists only in action, according to Sartre. In life, we commit ourselves and draw our own portrait, outside of which there is nothing.
The manipulation of desire
To say that we have absolute freedom to pursue our life’s meaning presumes that there is nothing getting in our way. But this isn’t always the case.
In The Ethics of Ambiguity, existentialist author and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir notes that as children we shoulder no responsibility; we live in a ready-made world with ready-made values. As we mature and become acquainted with our freedom we can begin to take matters into our own hands. However, many of us revert back to our childhood ways, trading freedom for security. Why?
Some of us are cut off from our goals; many of us are manipulated into pursuing desires that are not ours. We can be willed towards fruitless endeavours and therefore excluded from creating a meaningful future for ourselves.
The problem is that the oppressed often don’t know they are oppressed; they view the world as one that cannot change, as “a natural situation”. The only escape, according to de Beauvoir, is revolt. “The oppressed can fulfill his freedom as a man only in revolt.”
As de Beauvoir famously stated: “Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying.” For de Beauvoir, life is one of continuous change, an unstable system in which balance is continually lost and recovered. For her, inertia is synonymous with death.