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Archive for September, 2011

Existentialism is a Humanism

Posted by allzermalmer on September 5, 2011

This blog comes from this book, and is based on what Jean-Paul Sarte said in Existentialism is a Humanism.

Sarte presents two objections that are usually brought against existentialism, and they come from two sources. Those two sources are Communists and Christians.

He brings up that the Communists say that Existentialism leads one to quietism and despair, or contemplative philosophy. He points out that the Communist say that Existentialism shows us that every way is barred from a solution in life, and would have to regard any action as ineffective, and so we arrive at a contemplative philosophy.

He brings up that the Christians/Catholics say that Existentialism denies the reality and seriousness of human affairs. This is said because the commandments of God, and the values ascribed as eternal, and that nothing remains except what we take to be voluntary.

But Satre goes against all this, and he presents what he takes Existentialism to be. Existentialism renders human like possible, and it affirms that our actions imply both an environment and subjectivity.  And this point is what Satre thinks that brings criticism against Existentialism. It is that there is optimism, and that people don’t like it. It means that you can’t play off your actions on someone else or something else you have no control over. What makes the problem is that it confronts man with the possibility of choice.

But Satre goes on to mention that the Existentialism camp is broken into two sides. The two sides are those of theist existentialist and atheist existentialist. Those two are broken into something like Karl Jaspers,  Gabriel Marcel, Miguel de Unamuno as representative of the theist existentialist. The other side of atheist existentialist are represented by Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Satre.

There is one thing that both groups are united on, and it can be summed up in one slogan, which is the existentialist slogan. Existence comes before Essence. There’s another way of stating it, and it states, Existence precedes Essence.

So we might wonder what this “essence” is. Satre goes on to present an example of what it is suppose to be.

If one considers an article of manufacture0as, for example, a book or a paper-knife-one sees that it has been made by an artisan who had a conception of it; and he has paid attention, equally, to the conception of a paper-knife and to the pre-existent technique of production which is a part of that conception and is, at bottom, a formula. Thus the paper knife is at the same time an article producible in a certain manner and one which, on the other hand, serves a definite purpose. for one cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper-knife without knowing what it was for. Let us say, then, of the paper-knife that its essence0that is to say the sum of the formulae and the qualities which made its production and its definition possible- precedes it existence. The presence of such-and-such a paper-knife or book is thus determined before my eyes. Here, then, we are viewing the world from a technical standpoint, and we can say that production precedes existence.

That’s what the Existentialist argue against. Now, this idea of essence comes from Aristotle and Plato. We can take Plato as an example, since his forms might be easier. Take a chair. We find that there are so many different chairs in existence, like one that has three legs and no back support, or one with four legs and back support. But now there is said to be a form of a chair, and this form is which all particular chairs take part of. This form of a chair would be essence. Thus, this essence exists before any particular chair. The existentialist take a different point of view. This does not exist before the actual chair. Thus, we get the slogan of Existentialism of Existence comes before Essence.

Man first exists, and man comes to encounter himself, and comes up in the world. He surges up in the world, and defines himself afterwards. So man first starts out as undefinable, and this is because man starts out as nothing. Thus, man will not be anything until later, and this is when man defines himself.  So there is no human nature because there is no human essence.

We now find that man simply is. Man is not only what he conceives himself, but he is also what he wills himself to be, and he is also what he conceives himself to be after he has come into existence. Thus, the first principle of existentialism is Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.

This principle has a tinge of subjectivity to it, and man is a subjective creature. Man primarily exists and it propels itself towards some future and is aware of doing it. This is done through the subjective life of man, and this is based on some idea of self that the person has. And nothing exists prior to this creation of the self of man, and man only obtains existence it obtains what it purposes itself to be. It is not based on what it wishes to be, but on what it purposes to be.

Take the example of a party. I might wish to go to the party, but this can take part of spontaneous decision. I might feel like I had a bad, and all of a sudden I get an offer to go, and I’m like “Yeah, I’ll go since I’ve had a bad day”. But than I could have a purpose to go, because I’ve thought about it before, and I made a decision to go based on some purpose.

So existentialism puts man in possession of themselves, and the entire responsibility of the person relies on their own shoulders. Period. I’m in possession of myself, and no one else is in possession of myself. But, with this comes the responsibility of that everything falls on my shoulders, such as all my decisions and actions. I can not blame another for anything, and I can only blame myself.

There is a Kantian hint to what Sarte says of existentialism. He goes on to say, when it comes to us making a choice, “To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all.” For we fashion our image, since existence precedes essence, and so we are making an image of our epoch. Thus, it concerns making as a whole. Our image becomes one that mankind can come to take on as well.

We find a comment where Sarte shows us a Kantian hint in existentialism. “The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows- When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of making-in a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility.”

So this means that any action that we take, we have some anguish over it. We have this anguish because we are saying that all of human kind should follow this. This means we are taking responsibility for all of human kind ourselves. Take this example. If I am in a relationship with someone and I cheat on this person, then I’m saying it is okay for all humans in relationships to cheat on the one their in a relationship for. This also means I can’t be upset if someone I love cheats on me, since I’m saying that they can do it as well. Our actions become the actions for everyone else. This means we have to not only take responsibility for our actions, but that we’re also taking responsibility for the actions of others that follow what we do. So when we do something, we’re agreeing to it being universalized to all.

If we do something and are asked what we would think if others did it, we might say “but others aren’t doing it”. This would be self-deception, and we should stay away from this. Thus we find anguish over our actions. It brings great responsibility for what we do, since it is not only for ourselves but also for all people.

We can see this anguish with a military leader. A military leader takes responsibility for his decisions. For he is not only responsible for his actions, and his action of deciding what his troops should do, lead to anguish. He orders his troops to go to their death, and he feels directly responsible for it, and so his making a decisions brings him anguish over this.

So man is without excuses, and he has to take responsibility for his own actions, since he decides what actions to make. And with morality, this means there are no other values but those that we choose to follow. This means that we can’t make an excuse that a certain value says X, because we are the ones that decide our own values. There are no a priori values, and so we can’t have excuses by pointing to anything else. We take responsibility for our actions, and our own values. We are left alone without excuses for our actions.

From all this comes our “abandonment”. We are abandoned in that we are responsible for our actions, and so we decide our own being. We are abandoned in not having anything else to give us our responsibility or our values. These are things that we take hold of, we take the bull by the horns. We are completely abandoned. Think of a child that is raised to 13. At this time they are left to their own devices, and they have nothing that they can push things off anymore, since they only rely on themselves. They make their own decisions, and they decide their actions and values now.

We are also in “despair” because we limit our selves upon what is within our wills, or within the probabilities that render our actions possible. I’m in despair when it comes to car crash of someone that I love. There are only so many things that I can probably do. I have no “jaws of life” to split open the car and pull them out, and I’m not strong enough to pull off the doors. I don’t have a medical degree or anything to know what to do. So I’m in despair of what I can do. There’s only so many things I can do, so I find myself in despair because of these things. And those possibilities that don’t affect my actions, those things remain out of my mind.

What Existentialism is is the opposite of quietism. It declares there is no reality except in action. And it can be summed up with another slogan. “Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.” This means that you cannot complain about the circumstances that you are born into, and what others have done to you. You must take action, and you must assert your existence. Action is a way to assert one’s existence, and you must do it with purpose. This can be hard to do, and this brings about anguish and despair. But you are free and must act so, and you do this through purpose in your action. So we are defined by the deeds, we are defined by our actions.

An existentialist is an ethic of action and self-commitment. And there is a starting point, which follows from Descartes, which is I think, therefore I am. This is the first truth that we come to, and this is where we come to take responsibility. We are aware of ourselves, and we can take action from here, and must take responsibility for that action.

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