Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 15

(Read Part 14 of the series.)

Phenomenology and Existentialism

This movement began in the late nineteenth century as a theory of knowledge that attempted to reinstate science and bring in the modern findings from psychology and sociology to supplant the subjectivity that had predominated until then with the German Idealists. In particularly the wish was to understand the nature of awareness, differentiating between mental and non-mental realms.  Edmund Husserl, who was the teacher of Martin Heidegger (below), is generally credited with establishing the movement. It was acknowledged that we could not know that objects exist independent of our awareness of them but also that it cannot be denied that we are conscious of ‘things’. Phenomenology endeavoured to start from this point and attempt to analyse our experience without making any further assumptions. It subsequently merged into Existentialism.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was particularly interested in perception and the nature of the perceiving entity and ‘object’ of perception. He disliked both the empiricist and idealist approaches and spent much of his time attacking all dualist concepts such as the mind-matter division of Descartes. There cannot be any totally objective perception of the world, he said, because our perceptual apparatus is itself part of the world. Whenever we see something, what we ‘see’ comes along with everything else that we already know and the perception itself is the sum total of all of this. We can never see a chair, for example, without the awareness of its purpose as something for sitting on. The origin of our belief in a separate world derives from our thinking of ‘ourselves’ as other than the body that we apparently inhabit. We are our bodies, he said, and the mind cannot be separated from them.

Merleau-Ponty, like Wittgenstein before him, had second thoughts in his later life and attempted to rewrite his philosophy. In particular, he felt that his earlier work still suffered from the dualistic point of view of the philosopher attempting to describe a philosophy of consciousness. He really wanted to understand the nature of ‘being’ (the study that is called ‘ontology’ in philosophy). His previous ideas had incorporated the idea of a consciousness that exists prior to thought or language and he now wanted to deny this. Language thus came to play a much more important role.

The term derives from the Danish (and German) Existenz, that was used by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard to refer to the essential, subjective nature of our existence – our experience as an individual. (The movement did not come to be recognised as such until much later with the Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre.) Kierkegaard felt that our emotions were just as important as our capacity for reason. In his own life, he frequently suffered from severe depression, a malady that we perhaps naively tend to associate with the often pessimistic views expressed in the novels of Sartre and Camus. In his philosophy too, Kierkegaard wrote of how freedom ultimately leads to despair. He criticised Hegel’s philosophy for not taking account of the fundamental fact of human life, namely our experience as individuals. He still considered that it was our relationship with God that mattered most, though he was very critical of organised religion. We should turn our thoughts inward and appreciate our insignificance in His sight.

To the extent that we allow our choices in life to be dictated by preferences, experience, advice from others or other criteria, our future is predetermined. But we cannot escape choice and so should endeavour to make this from a basis of doubt, making a ‘leap of faith’ and accepting responsibility for our action. It cannot be meaningful simply to rely upon whatever situations, objects and people just happen to come our way. The model for such a way of life is that of Christ. Only by living in such a way can man achieve true satisfaction and feel that his existence is meaningful. The pursuit of pleasure or blindly following what is perceived to be one’s duty both eventually pall and lead to despair. ‘The thing is’, he said, ‘to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die’. There is no doubt that Kierkegaard at least very much wanted to find a meaning to his life!

Martin Heidegger is generally regarded as the founder of Existentialism, though he himself claimed not to be an Existentialist, saying that it was ‘being’ rather than the person that was important. He followed Kierkegaard in believing that the fundamental fact of our lives is our individuality and essential isolation. Kierkegaard had called it ‘angst’, the basic dread or anxiety we feel in the face of inherent uncertainty and the lack of control that we experience regarding ourselves and our future. Heidegger used the same term to describe our anxiety relating to the responsibility that we have to take for ‘being here’ in this life. Our essential entity he called ‘dasein’ (to be there), meaning that we are not isolated from the world, observing it dispassionately, but intimately involved and forever interacting with it in one way or another. Thus it is incorrect to attempt to describe an external world of objects separate from ourselves. There are really just ‘beings-in-the-world’.

We find ourselves here, he said, in a particular country, with a family background that was not of our choosing and that is where we start from. We can either accept all of this, believing ourselves to be no different from everyone else and simply living from day to day or, motivated by our angst, we can strive to realise our potential as individuals. This latter mode is the only authentic way of life. We may not succeed but this is the only environment available to us so that our meaning and purpose have to be found within this context.

His view was that it would be meaningless to say that we wanted to be in the situation of a millionaire and, since we are not, therefore we are not free. Even the beggar in the street is free if he accepts what he is and tries to change it. There are always choices, and freedom lies in accepting one’s limitations and making a choice out of those that are available. There cannot be a formula for providing us with purpose and meaning. It is for each individual, in his own particular situation to make a choice and commit to it and that alone will provide meaning for that individual. And this situation is ongoing for the whole of our lives. If an actual answer were compelled for the question as to what makes life worth living, the answer would have to be – nothing.

Before our birth, he claimed, we were nothing and after our death we will be nothing. Death brings an end to all possibilities and, in a sense, makes everything meaningless. We have to face this fact, accept responsibility for our life here and now, and then act without procrastination. Our lives are in a sense defined by the ‘nothingness’ that forever threatens in the background.

Sartre was most concerned with the freedom of the individual. We determine and define our own lives through the choices that we make. We can either ignore this responsibility, telling ourselves that we are forced to act as we do by our circumstances, society etc. or we can make a ‘commitment’ and live life to the full. The choices that I make ‘for myself’ are also in part determining the development of humanity as a whole since these choices will always either agree or disagree with the choices of others and bring about harmony or discord. The meaning of our lives and ‘our’ world are effectively created through our moment to moment choices. That entails responsibility and realisation of this brings the ‘angst’ to which Kierkegaard had referred. There is no one who can tell us what to do and, inevitably, we must encounter failure from time to time. This can lead to despair. It is this danger that has led to people often associating Existentialism with depression and the darker emotions of life.

Sartre also said that we need the feedback from others in order to understand ourselves. In moments of embarrassment, for example, it is the fact that our behaviour is noticed by others that makes us aware of ourselves objectively. And in such a situation, we are caused to label ourselves in some way and these activities are instrumental in defining ourselves as a separate ego.

Albert Camus, the Nobel prize-winning novelist, was also an Existentialist. (Sartre was nominated for the Nobel prize, too, but declined to accept.) He believed that there is no meaning at all in the universe and our attempts to make any sense of our lives is consequently ‘absurd’. In one of his philosophical essays, he compares our situation to that of the character Sisyphus from Greek mythology, whose sentence in hell was repeatedly to push a boulder up to the top of a mountain, from which it always rolled down again. His recourse to cope with the punishment is scorn: ‘Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition; it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.

(Read Part 16 of the series.)