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Existentialism’s answer

Our daughter just selected her courses for her first year at college. Among the four: Existentialism. Which has me a little scared.

Existentialism did a good job on me in my freshman year of convincing me that life is meaningless. I moped. Ordinary objects lost their significance even as I gazed at them. I looked around for a local Seine to plunge into. It took several more years for me to figure out why I think existentialism is wrong: the sort of meaning it laments hasn’t been with us since God died, but other (lesser) meaning has always been with us. It’s like me saying I’m unloved because Uma Thurman hasn’t fallen for me, while ignoring that Ann Geller has. Well, maybe it’s a little like that. [Note: I’m Ann’s husband.]

I’d been thinking about exisentialism anyway — and why I like it — because of the conversation the Happy Tutor and AKMA had last week. Akma began by being offended by Bush’s bald-faced lying. The Happy Tutor wondered how a post-Modernist can distinguish truth and lie, and then reflected further. Akma, disdaining the pomo label, replied. Wonderful stuff.

As the Tutor notes, his words may sound like a personal attack on Akma, but they do not indicate any lack of respect. Truly. Tutor’s question is: How can a deconstructionist hold moral truths? Hasn’t post-modernism pulled its own ground out from underneath it?

Is there a harder question? In this newly connected world we’re more aware than ever that other cultures hold beliefs contrary to ours but with as much conviction. Even after we weed out the cultures that we count as crazy or evil (and that weeding out is, of course, fraught with its own problems), we’re left with “legitimate” ideas that others hold and we reject. So, do we let ourselves be paralyzed into inaction? Do we take absolute actions — like killing people in war — as if our beliefs had absolute foundation? Isn’t this the story of the past century? Isn’t it what western culture has been building to for two millennia?

And in this situation, existentialism offers an answer that is unsatisfactory but is at least self-aware. Sartre knew that he held his beliefs and values largely because of the historical situation into which he was thrown, but he didn’t let that keep him from the important work of killing Nazis. He got his hands dirty (directly or indirectly) because there is no choice. He acted absolutely while aware of the limits of his own understanding and the arbitrariness of his own situation.

So, while I disagree with how existentialism understands the problem, I am in sympathy with its “solution.” I don’t like it. I just don’t know of a better one.

15 Responses to “Existentialism’s answer”

  1. I too spent time loving Sartre and Camus, also trying to smoke Gauloises like my French prof. Now, I think Existentialism makes too much fuss about how horrid it is of God not to exist, as if he might walk back into the room like Mommy if you scream loud enough. I find it sufficient that my actions have real good or bad meaning to human others, and I don’t need tablets of stone from a burning bush to endorse my choices.

  2. “Warfare is epistemology by other means.”
    Why I am so very postmodern, D von Bladet

  3. Advice for your daughter: After existentialism, take a course in Zen or Asian religions. I had my “eastern religions” phase after my “existentialism” phase and found that eastern Solutions were novel and interesting approaches to the same philosophical problems. Looking back, I see how much the two world wars shaped the thinking of existentialists. When Camus and Sartre were writing, times were pretty dire. By the way, Thomas Nagel (no relation!), I think, wrote a particularly strong critique of Sartreian absurdism, which is –for good reason– typically used in philosophy classes.

    I haven’t read Nagel’s essays in a while, but they were short, simple and always provocative.

  4. Like Robert, I recommend Zen, specifically “Peace is Every Step” by Thicht Nhat Hanh as a tonic to existential malaise. At the same time, E. O. Wilson’s “Consilience” is a fruitful opposition of existentialism. Just as physics is the realm of absolute truths, our understanding of human nature is expanding to the point where it is possible to imagine that we may some day have a scientific basis for human morality, at least in so far as acting “human” to one another. For instance, racism and sexism where seen as morally wrong only after an accumulation of evidence that the understanding of human nature that racism and sexism was based on was incorrect. Rush Nozier, Jr.’s “Why We Hate” is an excellent example of the expansion in our understanding. I’m rambling before bed, as usual. All good books though.

  5. Ok. I wasn’t going to say anything, but:

    1. As someone dating a buddhist scholar of buddhism, I’m VERY skeptical of the thinly-veiled ‘living together in harmony with the universe’ wasp ism that is the American take on ‘asian religion’ and in particular Zen. Hello people: Buddhism is the religion with over three hundred hells, ok? If she wants to read a real Zen text she should pick up the platform sutra of the third patriarch of Chan and not something designed to appeal to the same misrecognized protestant disposition that prompts readers to pick up the Celestine Prophecy.

    2. I’ve never understood the appeal of existentialism. But possibly the best ‘big answers to big questions’ book I’ve read is Charles Taylor’s “sources of the self”. You may disagree with Taylor’s moral philosophy, his wishy-washy multiculturalism, and his treatment of the Liberian people, but this book is /fantastic/. Explains how we got to have the questions we have and what our answers to them over the course of western civilization have been. Can’t reccomend it highly enough.

    3. Uh… if you’re looking for a religious tradition to address your daughter’s long-standing existential issues, maybe you should direct her to read some JEWISH texts since that’s probably the cultural tradition that’s responsible for her issues in the first place. God in Search of Man is quite popular these days, I understand. Or perhaps Buber’s Chasidic tales?

    4. Novels of Ideas for the existentially inclined: the Magic Mountain, Anna Karenina, Bros. Dostoevsky, Infinite Jest, Wind Up Bird Chronicle, On The Road.

    4. Oh wait – I changed my mind. Jurgen is absolutely the bestest book ever for this:
    http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/CABELL/contents.htm

    whew. now I feel better.

  6. The point of departure on this discussion was atheistic. I doubt JoHo was shopping for a replacement metaphysics. Left apart from the context of Buddhist metaphysics, mindfulness and other methods are still generally useful. I can understand how some adherents would dislike religious “cherry picking”, but I doubt a Bodhisattva would.

  7. Moral Teaching – Criteria of Success

    “H” What counts as Winning in Moral Teaching? True Theory or Subduing Old Harry? David Weinberger writes on Existentialism and moral choice in a postmodern world, taking up the discussion that AKMA and I had been having.

  8. Moral Teaching – Criteria of Success

    “H” What counts as Winning in Moral Teaching? True Theory or Subduing Old Harry? David Weinberger writes on Existentialism and moral choice in a postmodern world, taking up the discussion that AKMA and I had been having.

  9. I am Mongolian. My profession is teacher. I am interesting philosophy. for example;Kierkegaard, Yaspers

  10. I think Existentialism and eastern religions have much in common with each other. In the period around and following the two world wars, many people asked the question ‘where is God now?’ In light of the tragodies of the twentieth century, It was questioned whether god was dead after all, as Nietzsche had claimed.
    Nietzsche is often considered to be one of the founding fathers of the general group of philosophers associated with the term ‘existentialism’ or existenz philosophie. The early split of good and evil in the Judeo-Christian tradition has created a void or emptiness in the place of the creation of the divine, in a world of human free will. The existence of being is limited to human self, which is foundationless and ‘condemned to freedom’ in the lonely world without a God.
    In Eastern sacred scripture, such as the Bhagavad Gita, there is a story representing an example of a divine agent of Brahman to be acting through the agents of Krisna and Arjuna in the story of the battle scene. In this sense, there is no feeling of lack of divine presence in the tragic circumstances, but rather a revelation of great proportion.
    The lack of basic self-nature, as found in the existentialist writing seems readily parallel in thought to basic Buddhist teachings, in addition to the traditions of Sufi Muslim believers.

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