Notebook, 1993-



The introduction/Existence, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.


The Introduction to this section is presented below [notes have not yet been transcribed]. The following is a list of the articles presented in this section of The Modern Tradtion on Existence:

The Definition of Existence

Moments of Existence

Value in Existence

Existence - Introduction
The idea of "existence" is part of the modern conception of the self, and under this heading many of the themes of the preceding section will recur: an opposition of individual and society; an inner division of particularity and universality; temporal emergence; the struggle for authenticity; and a troubled assertion of freedom. But existentialism is a very intense and philosophically specialized form of the quest for selfhood. It has a psychological subtlety and a sense of urgency that are its own. The distinctive existentialist vocabulary--turning on such categories as being, absurdity, choice, dread, despair, commitment--is like a situational survey or map courageously drawn at a moment of supreme crisis.

Two nineteenth-century writers, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, have been especially influential in the development of the idea of existence. The fact that one was Christian, and the other not, anticipates a division that still persists among existentialists. But they set out from much the same diagnosis of the predicament of the modern individual. Both contrast the untranslatability, the subjective concreteness, the dynamic process, and the dialectical tension of individual existence with the norms of society, abstract theories, static systems, and objective knowledge.^

Kierkegaard denounces the conception of a person as being primarily a member of a social group, for this is to be a "specimen" in a "crowd," equivalent to what Dostoevsky calls "an ant in an antheap."^ The crowd is destructive of true existence, for the man who belongs to it is at once relieved of individual responsibility and deprived of his freedom. To live so is to ignore the special attribute which distinguishes human life, that only one person in the world is capable of consciously being that person, undergoing his fate or attaining his salvation. The existential individual has his being in relation to himself, to another, or to God, but never in relation to a crowd. Similarly, his existence is negated by adherence to a philosophic system or to abstract religious dogmas. Like the crowd, systematic and abstract thought is "untruth," [p. 803] since it pretends to have a finality that no human experience can possess. Truth resides in the individual's striving toward absolute truth, for in this case he acknowledges his finitude and thereby is given his portion of the infinite in the only form in which he will ever attain it in this life. Human existence, the meeting point of time and eternity, is thus analogous to the incarnation of god in Christ, the God-Man--and this religious mystery is, indeed, the very truth toward which the individual ceaselessly strives.^

Nietzsche also repudiates the crowd with its leveling gregariousness and its pursuit of the "common good." Not only Christianity and its ethics of submission but also democracy and socialism, the domain of supposedly advanced "free-thinkers," are for him devices to suppress or escape from individuality. Nietzsche directs his attack against science and philosophy as well . Science is invalidated because it exalts natural phenomena and objective, rational examination of them, thereby converting the subjective being into a mere mirror of external things. Philosophy is discredited because the philosophic "will to truth" hides the crucial fact that all so-called truths are actually instruments of the individual will. Falsehoods may on occasion serve the will just as well. What matters is the philosopher himself, "the innermost desires of his nature," not the abstract validity of his philosophy. Nietzsche regards the culture of his time as vitiated by the theoretical impulse, which he calls "Alexandrian" and "Socratic," in allusion to earlier eras of intellectual analysis. Men are vaguely aware of their impasse, awaiting the new messsage of individual existence founded on will.^

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are at one in seeking to fix upon the actuality of a person. The existentialists have carefully named and described various states of this subjective being. Camus brilliantly evokes the moment when a man discovers a lack of purpose and meaning in acts that he has performed habitually and unthinkingly, or rather, when he begins to demand that they have a meaning for him and discovers that they can provide none. Other men, nature, metaphysical reality, the very forms of logic strike him as absurd--that is, radically incommensurable with the one who appeals to them for his meaning. He can confidently assert nothing but the bare fact that he exists and that he is bound in a relation of incompatibility and hatred to things other than himself.^ Put in a more positive way, the moment of absurdity can be described in Sartre's terms as a realization that in human life "existence comes before essence." Sartre declares that there is no such thing as an abstract "human nature" or essence by means of which we might define or measure our individual selves according to the usual method of reason. We must begin by recognizing the absurdity of man, his lack of any such a priori [p. 804] definition, and then consciously take responsibility for the particular human attributes that we individually and spontaneously will.

Most existentialists follow Kierkegaard in emphasizing that a moment comes for the individual when he must make an irrevocable choice and that such moments are our only "real" ones. For the most part, Kierkegaard says, people refuse to reach this point, taking refuge in neutrality; but by neglecting to choose they drift into a limbo of others' choices, or the obscure choices of their own unconscious, and give up all chance of becoming themselves. A living creature cannot preserve a blank personality. Nor can the choice, when made, be merely a day-to-day preference, for this is what Kierkegaard calls "aesthetic" as opposed to "ethical" choice, a choice that is actually no choice and leaves a man still submerged in the multiplicity of immediate experience. In ethical choice, everything is staked upon the decision; there is an absolute "either/or," a total exercise of individual freedom. By choosing, even by choosing wrongly, if that is done with earnestness and struggle, we become new selves that could not have existed until the choice was made. Beyond ethical choice is religious choice, the use of freedom to surrender it back to its divine giver. For Kierkegaard, this is the secret origin and goal of all freedom of choice: the individual is ultimately free only in choosing God.^

For Sartre, as an atheistic existentialist, precisely the opposite is true: God's non-existence is the major reason why the existing man must take responsibility for himself. Deliberately or not, the individual chooses at every instant what he is; in choosing himself he affirms a value; and thereby he makes a partial definition of man, promulgates a law of which he must assume the burden. The anguish of conscious decision in Sartre's godless world is like the agony of Kierkegaard's Abraham, the man of faith, summoned to sacrifice Isaac; but it is even more extreme since the choice must occur without any superhuman content or reward. Though an authentic choice aims at the future and is constructive, in the moment of choice a man is "forsaken" --abandoned to his own total freedom.^

As Sartre's allusion to Kierkegaard indicates, his use of the term "anguish" derives from the angst or "dread" about which Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger after him, have written. They use the word to describe the state of mind of a person who has begun to depart from habit and to understand his existential condition. As Heidegger describes it, dread is neither simple nervousness nor fear of something specific. Dread is about the indefinite; it is the state that Kierkegaard calls an awareness that anything is possible, that insecurity is infinite. Heidegger's dread is the presence of a negative infinity, a loss of both personal and universal being, an entry into positive Nothingness. [p. 805] To this extent it is a roundabout approach to Being. According to Kierkegaard, the torture of dread, though it can lead to despair, can also, by destroying all trust in finite ends, prepare for the saving experience of infinite faith.

Sartre is not so much concerned with the specific qualities of anguish as with its other face--for him, the attainment of "authenticity." This is the consummation of existence and the basis for all moral judgment. Self-deception tries to bar the way, impelling a man to adopt the mask of some external role or to plead that he is driven by some overwhelming passion, or by fate, or by some other deterministic force. Such special pleading is not only erroneous but also morally culpable. Authenticity demands the wholehearted acceptance of freedom as the sine qua non of a man's own existence and that of mankind. Everything else is permitted, but there is one absolute moral law: that every action be taken in the name of freedom.

When the choice is made, or the absurdity of life recognized, or the dread converted, or the responsibility assumed, existence is felt as a value in itself. In their different ways the existentialists find their reason for existence in both effort and accomplishment. Camus sees a man arriving, through admission of absurdity, at an affirmation of his own worth. By emptying himself of illusion, by abandoning hope and the quest for ultimate meaning, the absurd man is enabled to realize the peculiar meaning of his very condition. For if his life is hopeless and meaningless, he is at once liberated and put in a position to exercise his freedom in a revolt against absurdity. He no longer would have it otherwise; he keeps the absurd alive as the context of his individual effort to make sense. Camus uses Sisyphus, endlessly pushing his stone up the hill only to have it roll down again, for his example of the hero who recognizes futility and scorns it. Sisyphus is the owner of his days and finds the struggle upward enough to fill his heart. Camus comes sharply to the paradox that underlies his version of existentialist thought: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Sartre turns his doctrine of existential choice into a doctrine of engagement. Social action is a logical extension of individual subjective life because the individual exists only as a series of active choices. There is no individual reality except in deeds; there are no unused possibilities within a man; to live is to draw one's own portrait by all that one does. Similarly, there is no social reality except in the agreement of individuals acting in concert; it is useless to theorize about social laws dictated by abstract human nature or historical necessity.^ Therefore personal life and social action coincide as a series of free undertakings or commitments.

Kierkegaard moved in a very different direction from both the self-sufficiency of Camus and the Sartrean social commitment. In his view, absurdity was the ground of Christian faith. First of all, faith is absurd or paradoxical [p. 806] in its form. Like aesthetic and intellectual states of mind, which are properly concerned with mere "possibilities," faith looks beyond itself; and yet, like ethical choice, which is properly concerned with a man's own individual existence, faith deals in subjective "reality." Thus the form of faith is paradoxical because it is properly concerned with the reality of another. But the object of faith is also paradoxical. It is the one being who is both "other" and really existent--the God-Man, whose love for and entry into the world are the ultimate paradox. In its absurdity, faith abrogates not only the aesthetic and intellectual canons but also the ethical. Abraham's willingness to obey the divine summons to sacrifice his son was truly religious because it was ethically preposterous; it was an acceptance of a wholly alien reality--in this dramatic case, a positively immoral command--as the deepest choice of his own being. Abraham is Kierkegaard's hero of faith, the model of a passionate leap from individual existence into a trans-personal religious state.

This absurd transcendence, however, is as individual a matter for kierkegaard as Camus's absurd freedom is for him. In Jaspers's phrase, these are "philosophers of the exception:" even if they discover a world larger than the individual, it still pivots on a unique individual experience. Jaspers would emphasize "communication" and open up existence into a realm of human reason. By "reason" he does not mean an elaborate systematic construction but a common human enterprise of thought. Unique individuals, in reaching toward each other, reach toward the universal human truth that is presupposed by all attempts to communicate. Individual truth is valid only as it strives to be more than individual; a deliberate solitude, whatever its aim, leads to an impoverishment of self. Sartre concurs to the extent of maintaining that the man who realizes his own freedom is thereby confronted with a world of others whom he must conceive as equally free. Though there is no universal human nature that we can presuppose, there is a universal human condition or situation. We live in a growing community of human purposes, proposed by changing individuals but intelligible to all men.^ Martin Buber goes further to deny that isolated existence is even possible. We exist in a relation to other men, to nature, and to God. The only question is whether the relation shall be abstract and objective, an "I" to an "It," or concrete and immediate, an "I" to a "Thou." In the second relation only is there life and value. Every "Thou" tends to collapse into an "It," an inert thing, but every "It" is destined to be regenerated as a "Thou" in the eyes of art and of love.^

Jaspers and Buber, in contrast to Sartre, would postulate a Being that is the ground of existence--not the wholly paradoxical God of Kierkegaard but a transcendent absolute implied by all communication and every affective relation. Jaspers calls this "the Encompassing" and conceives it as a principle of open possibility, a comprehensive "horizon" that is never reached but yet [p. 807] is actually present in men's own effort to transcend every horizon. Heidegger also urges that the involvement of Being in human nature is the basic philosophic question. Metaphysics has never raised the question properly, and today especially we live in "oblivion of Being." To recover Being, not as an objective fact but as a perennial question, is to go back into the ground of metaphysics, to find the roots of our existence. [p. 808]

[The introduction/Existence, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.]



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