Module: Existentialism (Nanyang Technological University)
Book: Marino, G. (2004). Basic Writings of Existentialism. USA: Modern Library.
The core existentialist claim is that life has no inherent, predetermined, objective meaning. What meaning human life has is generated by human beings themselves. What are the consequences of this view for how we can or should live?
Jean-Paul Sartre writes that “the essential meaning of existentialism” is to understand “that it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity” (Marino, 2004, p.346). At every moment in our life, we are confronted with only our own. By recognising our subjectivity, we recognise that others have theirs too. Our lack of access to another’s being emphasises the loneliness of our being. At the same time, this recognition comes with the realisation of our finiteness. Often, we tend and want to believe that the world we formulate is the same as others, in order to achieve some commonality between our being and others. Through one’s interaction in the world, we experience intersubjectivity (According to Edmund Husserl, it is through empathy and placing ourselves in someone else’s shoes, that we get this experience.). This “connection” makes us feel as if there is someone who is able to understand what we are going through. Albert Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus, that “to understand is, above all, to unify…It is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity.” However, this connection between men is not sufficient to dispel the loneliness and discomfort. Men also need to understand the world, in hope to find their place in it. To negate the loneliness and isolation, men exert their existence in order to try to find meaning. But, fundamentally, is there a way of being?
In this essay, I will begin by presenting a universal norm and religious path as a way of being, as espoused by Søren Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling, followed by Sartre’s atheistic path in Being and Nothingness. Next, I will introduce Simone de Beauvoir’s argument from The Ethics of Ambiguity, to illustrate the inauthenticity of taking a universal or religious path. Authenticity is the positive “attitude in which (one) engage(s) in (one’s) projects as (their) own” (Crowell, 2016). For the existentialist, authenticity is key to one’s way of being because it directly relates to one’s responsibility over oneself and is how one treats themselves. Using Sartre’s terminologies, authenticity requires that the individual recognises both their facticity and transcendence. A straightforward interpretation of facticity is, what and who one is, and transcendence is, the possibilities that one could engage in. After demonstrating the inauthenticity, I will then bring up a possible objection to de Beauvoir. It seems that our freedom entitles us to be able to choose our own way of being. This includes being inauthentic, as long as it is a free choice and one finds joy or happiness. This is important because it questions what we take to be our telos, which will invariably determine our way of being to achieve it. Then, I will respond on behalf of de Beauvoir, to argue that this form of happiness and joy experienced is not concrete. If one desires happiness, there is no better way of being than to be authentic.
For some, it is in abiding the universal or religious laws that one gets clarity. Kierkegaard believes that when one loses their individuality and joins with the universal, their “actions become meaningful in the sense of (the) understandable, governed by a norm” (Crowell, 2016). By committing to the universal, one believes that this objectivity is the way of being and, if one does so, it is meaningful. However, “the singularity of existence comes to light at the moment of conflict between ethics and religious faith” (Crowell, 2016). One either commits to renouncing their subjectivity and holds onto objective laws, or, breaks away and accepts the subjectivity of making one’s own decision to obey God’s commands (Kierkegaard calls this person the single individual, who exists outside the universal). Both positions are measured against different benchmarks. Being in the universal is good by moral virtue, and being the single individual is good by “a purely personal virtue” (Marino, 2004, p.14). The former finds meaning in performing these objective values and the latter finds meaning in obeying God’s commands. Both positions ground their existence and purpose in something external, be it the objective standard(s) or absolute.
These positions are contrasted by Sartre who is an atheist. For the theist, because “the individual man is the realisation of a certain concept in the divine intelligence,” man’s essence precedes existence; just as a papercutter’s design and function are determined before its actualisation (Marino, 2004, p.344).
Conversely, in the absence of God, men have no predefined purpose for his being here. So, existence precedes essence. The undefined telos essentially means that life is meaningless. Sartre celebrates it by taking on a positive view. Since life is undefined, men can make their own meaning. This freedom then, becomes the ultimate meaning of life. This makes men angst because not only is one entirely responsible over their life, but for all men because, “in creating the man that we want to be,” we also decide what “we think (men) ought to be” (Marino, 2004, p.346). Therefore, the meaning of life for men is to promote freedom not just for oneself, but for mankind.
De Beauvoir further elaborates Sartre’s existentialist philosophy by presenting several positions of inauthentic ways of being which denies either one’s facticity and or, transcendence (De Beauvoir, 1948). Of them includes the serious-man, whom she would classify both the person who conjoins with the universal and theist. The serious-man holds onto external justification over their lives. In subscribing to objectivity, he denies his transcendence in being able to freely make his own choices. This regression to the serious-man is seen as a refuge from the angst. (Satre poses the question: “Can it be that what really scares them in the doctrine…is that it leaves to man a possibility of choice?” (Marino, 2004, p. 343)) Out of fear, he “engulfs his transcendence in the object which bars the horizon and bolts the sky” (De Beauvoir, 1948, p.51). “This recourse to the serious is a lie; it entails the sacrifice of man to the Thing, of freedom to the Cause” (Marino, 2004, p.416). Men are no longer ends in themselves, but means for the Cause. By committing to objectivity, one also imposes it on others and disregards their subjectivity and freedom. By that measure, the serious-man is dangerous. De Beauvoir criticises “an action which wants to serve man ought to be careful not to forget him on the way; If it chooses to fulfill itself blindly, it will lose its meaning or will take on an unforeseen meaning” (Marino, 2004, p.431). In relinquishing one’s subjectivity, one denies his and other’s freedom to a Cause, rather than taking the authentic position to promote men’s freedom. Hence, no one should hold on to this, or any other inauthentic positions, without violating one’s or other’s freedom.
However, if men are free, then should it not be that each individual’s freedom entitles them to freely choose their own way of being? De Beauvoir writes that “to will man free is to will there to be being, it is to will the joy of existence; in order for the idea of liberation to have a concrete meaning, the joy of existence must be asserted in each one, at every instant; the movement toward freedom assumes its real, flesh and blood figure in the world by thickening into pleasure, into happiness” (Marino, 2004, p.418). Freedom allows one to create meaning and exerts one’s existence in the world. The exercise of this creation process in itself brings us happiness and joy. This pleasure experienced makes life meaningful. Life is a potential of creative force to be exercised, and so it will be meaningful to exercise it. However, what does meaning add to life? What is meaningful? It seems that without the pleasure or sense of purpose felt in exercising the creative force, the act itself would be completely meaningless. Insofar as one can consciously tell, one does not seem to gain anything from such empty acts. A meaningful act seems to usually be accompanied with a sense of pleasure, purpose or happiness. Is it not the point that when we choose to do what we want, we are acting freely, and this gives us the joy of life? If we were told what to do like the serious-men then, how do these two positions differ? Therefore, it seems more rational to take these feelings as our telos. For example, one could consciously decide not to examine his life because he believes that in doing so, he will be digging out the worms and the constant questioning will cause him to be discontented with life and thus, become unhappy. He recognises this self-deception he holds on to (facticity) and knows that he need not deceive himself (transcendence). Ignorance is bliss, he says. Thus, if it is about happiness or purpose, then fundamentally it seems that freely choosing inauthenticity as one’s way of being would not be a bad position as long as one is happy with it, and recognises that if they were not, they can always choose other alternatives.
In response to such a position, de Beauvoir would firstly agree that indeed one does have a right to choose what a good life is for oneself. She claims that “to want to prohibit a man from error is to forbid himself to fulfill his own existence, it is to deprive him of life” (Marino, 2004, p.420). Moreover, if it were a conscious decision then “the man who has the necessary instruments to escape this lie and who does not want to use them consumes his freedom in denying them” (De Beauvoir, 1948, p.48). They have a right to make the final decision without any coercion on our part. However, she will also argue that basing happiness and purpose on such contingent grounds will not make for concrete happiness. The happiness from being inauthentic is fragile. It seems that fear is compelling the serious-man to be in such a position. “(One) keeps himself from existing because (one) is not capable of existing without a guarantee” (De Beauvoir, 1948, p.50). In choosing to take this position, one ends up being filled with worry. People who do not have the same values, threaten his worldview. Since his life is based on an external condition one has no control over, one “will be constantly upset by the uncontrollable course of events” – Such foundation is not concrete and “that is why the serious-man’s life loses all meaning if he finds himself cut off from his ends” (De Beauvoir, 1948, p.51). A prudential way is to base happiness on something concrete so that one will not be unnecessarily disappointed. It is a better way of being to achieve happiness.
In conclusion, even though the conception of freedom, on the one hand, means that we are free to choose our way of being, it is not the best route to achieve concrete happiness. It is ambiguous if one should make someone else change their life and it might even be a futile effort. “Man always has to decide by himself in the darkness, that he must want beyond what he knows” (Marino, 2004, p.420). No effort and imposition from someone else can make another live the way they refuse to. If someone does not love their life sufficiently in the first place, to make any effort, “it is futile to seek to justify it in any way” (Marino, 2004, p.418).
Crowell, S. (2016). Existentialism. [online] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/#KieSinInd [Accessed 8 Apr. 2016].
De Beauvoir, S. (1948). The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Corp., pp.3573.
Duranti, A. (2010). Husserl, Intersubjectivity and Anthropology. Anthropological Theory, [online] 10(120). Available at: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/duranti/HusserlIntersubjectAT.pdf [Accessed 8 Apr. 2016].
Marino, G. (2004). Basic Writings of Existentialism. United States of American: Modern Library.