Book Plug: Situating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context

Situating ExistentialismSituating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context, edited by Jonathan Judaken and Robert Bernasconi, is an excellent addition to the current literature on existentialism. The book not only situates existentialism historically and culturally, but it also takes a multidisciplinary approach, engaging philosophical, religious, and literary expressions of existentialism in its various Russian, Latin American, African, and European instantiations. The book is divided into three parts: (trans)national contexts, existentialism and religion, and migrations. The essays in part one focus on the various national contexts where existentialism appeared as a site of cultural exchange. It includes chapters on Russian existentialism by Val Vinokur, German existentialism by Peter Gordon, French existentialism by Jonathan Judaken, and Hispanic and Latin American existentialisms by Eduardo Mendieta. The essays in part two are devoted to existentialism and religion and include chapters on Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism by George Pattison, Jewish existentialism by Paul Mendes-Flohr, and Camus and unbelieving existentialism by Ronald Aronson. The essays in part three analyze the “national and religious borderlines that were crossed as existentialism was consolidated and canonized” (15). Here we have several noteworthy chapters such as Charles Bambach’s, “Rethinking the ‘Existential’ Nietzsche in Germany: Lowith, Jaspers, Heidegger,” Robert Bernasconi’s, “Situating Franz Fanon’s Account of Black Experience,” and Debra Bergoffen’s, “Simone de Beauvoir in Her Times and Ours: The Second Sex and Its Legacy in French Feminist Thought” to name a few.

As Judaken emphasizes in his helpful introduction to the volume, although the book is a genealogy of “the process of systematizing and canonizing existentialism as a movement of thought,” the establishment of existentialism as a distinctive mode of interrogating the human condition was assembled “only in hindsight” (2). In other words, existentialism by nature is not an –ism, not a system of thought like Hegel’s philosophy; yet retrospectively, we can recognize shared questions and concerns among its leading figures. Part of existentialism’s resistance to systemization and categorization results from the diverse and even conflicting views of its advocates. In other words, while its forerunners and major proponents share a common set of questions and concerns regarding political, religious, and ethical life, they disagree profoundly in their answers. Camus, for example, held that whether or not God exists was irrelevant to the persistent matters of our human condition. In stark contrast, Kierkegaard held that God’s existence and our relation to him was paramount to a proper understanding of ourselves, the world, and others. On the topic of politics, Kierkegaard was highly critical of “collective movements, insisting that where the crowd goes, untruth reigns” (3). Such a position is seemingly incompatible with Sartre’s stress on the necessity of political action and his call for a revolutionary politics. In the area of ethics, we have similar conflicting views. On the one hand, Sartre views human relations as fundamentally antagonistic. On the other hand, Marcel, Jaspers, and Buber hold a more positive view of relationships. For these thinkers, relationships are essential for one’s true ethical development, as they provide concrete occasions for the possibility of transforming our human tendency to reduce others to mere objects (3).

Whether one reads Simone de Beauvoir’s interrogations of gender norms, Fanon’s critique of the oppressive white gaze, Kierkegaard’s struggles with faith, or Heidegger’s description of anxiety, one encounters thinkers wrestling with fundamental questions and concerns of the human condition in its various historical and cultural inflections. As Judaken observes, “existentialists addressed the most fundamental concerns of human existence: suffering, loneliness, dread, guilt, conflict, spiritual emptiness, the absence of absolute values or universals, the fallibility of human reason, and the tragic impasses of the human condition” (6). Such common questions and shared themes—even though addressed and answered in incompatible ways—morphed into a powerful critique of modern life and thought. That is, existentialist philosophers were concerned about the rapid modernization of life fueled by its technological drives and ever-expanding bureaucratization of daily life. Along with other thinkers, artists, and activists unable to remain silent about colonization, technology and warfare, and the oppression of women, existentialists joined the chorus of critical voices revealing the violence and vacuity of modernity’s “progress” narratives. As Judaken puts it, “[e]xistentialism thus limned modernity and exposed its hollowness, revealing that it rested on a void. In reflecting this nothingness, existentialists pulled up the anchors that ostensibly undergirded the European culture of high modernity” (11).

Situating Existentialism provides not only an excellent historical introduction to existentialism, but it also shows how the deeply human cries of existentialist philosophers continue to resonate with 21st century concerns.

Part II: Dialectic of Enlightenment and How Demythologizing Gives Birth to New Mythologies

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno make an interesting and somewhat unexpected connection between the structure of Kantian philosophy and culture industry. According to Kant, the transcendental subject constitutes objects of experience. This means that we provide the laws structuring reality. In other words, given that we bring a priori the forms of intuition and the categories of the understanding to the chaos “out there”and thus constitute the objects of possible experience, it turns out that the experience of the transcendental subject is in a sense circular. Here Horkheimer and Adorno see a parallel with culture industry.  For example, Hollywood film producers present us with images bestowing meaning. That is, the producer endows the images with certain structures, thus constituting them as does the Kantian subject. Prior to the film being made, the producer and his colleagues get together and decide what precisely people want to see. Thus, in our movie experience, we encounter objects of experience pre-constituted by the director and his/her team based on perceived cultural values (in this case, cultural values and interests that sell). So the system of the Enlightenment (a system of theoretical thought) and the “system” of culture come to be self-contained. Consider how this cultural constitution or, in more poststructuralist language, construction of social reality and subjectivities impacts our daily life. From the construction of the “terrorist-other” whom we instructed to fear and hate to what it is to be “feminine” or “masculine,” we are constantly bombarded with competing discourses, social customs, and practices, all of which shape our perceptions of ourselves, our relation to the other, our roles, the “place” of others, and so forth.

Revisiting the theme of enlightenment rationality as “purely functional,” Horkheimer and Adorno explain that such is its logical end. Why? Because with the de(con)struction, dismissal and death of a telos connected to rationality, reason becomes functional or instrumental.  As a result, enlightenment does away with difference or alterity. Interestingly, Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s analyses and conclusions are very much in harmony with insights foregrounded by postmodern thinkers like Foucault and Heidegger. Because reason no longer has any goals outside itself, pure reason moves increasingly toward unreason as there is nothing regulating this “emptied out” rationality. (Of course, Foucault would not claim that this is a necessary movement). This is part of the dialectic of enlightenment; it drives its self-critique such that the basis of its own rationality is destroyed. Only after enlightenment has eliminated all, then (according to enlightenment theory), we have acceptable meaning. This is reminiscent of certain—not all of course—expressions of analytic philosophy, wherein philosophy becomes completely irrelevant to human existence.  Here thought is meaningful only after the sacrifice of meaning. The result of this formalization of reason means that since there are no external criteria (but only internal criteria), this hollowed-out rationality can then be used positively or negatively. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, this is the kind of rationality employed for example, in fascism, as well as Marquis de Sade. De Sade, as Horkheimer and Adorno would be quick to emphasize, is not illogical, but rather thinks with amazing clarity and has understood that enlightenment thinking accepts no tradition or external values; thus, it can come up with its own rationality and can eliminate pity, compassion, and the like. So de Sade can set up narratives of dissoluteness, engage in violence against women and others, and at the same time can present a “coherent” system. Examples such as these support the authors’ thesis that with the ushering in of instrumental, hollow enlightened rationality, “pure reason becomes unreason.”

Descartes’ Ambivalent Relationship with Tradition

Descartes StampDescartes is often referred to as the “father” of modern philosophy and for good reasons.  In several of his works, Descartes speaks openly of his frustrations with his philosophical predecessors, highlighting the various ways that they contradict themselves and leave one in a state of skepticism and despair.  Although embracing fervently the scientific revolution of his day and hoping to clear away the clutter of the philosophic past, Descartes, despite his own intentions, retains much of the previous tradition.   Like Beethoven, who mediates the Classical and Romantic eras of music history, Descartes functions as a transitional figure mediating the medieval and modern periods.   Many scholars have noted that his Meditations are modeled after the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius.  (Cf. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, “Experiments in Philosophic Genre:  Descartes’ ‘Meditations’.  Rorty discusses the various meditational traditions that Descartes brings together in the Meditations).  Although literary analyses of the Meditations vary and suggest complex, multiple levels at work in the Meditations, it seems safe to say that Descartes’ concern in that work is with certainty (a common quest of the modern period) rather than spiritual growth.  In light of the new scientific discoveries of the 17th century, Descartes is convinced that he must make a break with the past (Aristotelian/medieval) tradition and build a new, more secure philosophical system on the model of geometry and compatible with modern science.[1] One of the components of his razing project involves the use of methodological doubt.  (As Gadamer highlights in Truth and Method, the search for the “right method” is a common quest of the modern philosophers).  Having shown that the various possible avenues of knowledge can be deceptive or called into question (senses, mathematical knowledge [cf. the evil demon exercise], various authorities etc.), Descartes finally arrives at his indubitable truth, viz., that he cannot doubt his own existence, as doubting presupposes thought and thought presupposes existence.  From this supposed Archimedean point, Descartes attempts to construct a philosophical system that will yield the certainty lacking in views of his predecessors.

Ironically, Descartes, though criticizing past thinkers, continues to rely on ancient and medieval theological and philosophical insights.   We see this especially in Descartes’ various arguments for the existence of God, one of which is a version of St. Anselm’s ontological argument.  In the other arguments for God’s existence, Descartes takes the causal principle as self-evident, viz. there must be at least as much formal reality in the cause of an idea as there is objective reality in the idea itself, where the objective reality of the idea is something like the intentional or representational complexity of the idea. For example, the idea of a computer contains more objective reality than the idea of a plastic screw.  In addition, Descartes even engages in a defense of God’s goodness—a kind of theodicy—by appealing to an Augustinian, Neoplatonic understanding of evil as a privation.   In meditation IV the question arises, if God a non-deceiving God and is all-powerful, why did he create us as beings capable of going astray? In other words, why not make us incapable of erring?   How does Descartes respond to these questions?  He appeals to a traditional Neoplatonic-Augustinian answer!  First, he says that evil is a privation; it is not a thing but is rather the absence of good.  Thus, God does not create evil, as evil is a form of non-being.  Second, God created a diverse universe, which contains beings of various sorts and of varying degrees of perfection depending upon how “close” or “far” they are (ontologically speaking) from God who is all-perfect.

In short, though Descartes wants in many ways to “throw off” tradition, both the form and content of the Meditations show how indebted he was to the past,


[1] Descartes does in fact separate himself from the ancient and medieval past when he replaces Aristotelian empiricism with his own version of rationalism.  That is, in Aristotelian empiricism one knows an external object by the process of abstracting a form from it.  In Descartes’ rationalism, one knows an external object by grasping it directly through intellectual intuition—as e.g., the way in which I know myself directly as an immaterial substance, a res cogitans.  With regard to external objects, we grasp these directly as well; however, we know them as something extended, a res extensa. For Descartes, material substance just is extension. Given this identity, Descartes can then explain why mathematics applies to external reality: as a quantity, extension is describable in purely mathematical terms.  Since external objects just are quantities of extension, they are also mathematically describable.

Nietzsche on the Human Tendency to Ossify Metaphors and Christ Who Shatters All Columbaria

According to Nietzsche in his essay, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,”[1] what we take to be knowledge involves two metaphors.  Here metaphor is understood in a broad sense, namely, as transference.  First, we have a transfer that occurs from a nerve stimulus caused by the external world, which is then translated into an image.  Secondly, that image is then transferred into a sound, that is, it becomes language.  Nietzsche’s point is that we construct our knowledge at a distance from (here at least two steps) the flow of life.  For example, when I look out the window and see a tree, a series of brain and nerve activities occurs, but these neural stimulations bear no intrinsic similarities to the tree “out there.”  Thus, we have the first metaphoric-ization or transference.   Then, having received this stimuli, I translate this information into a word, into language, which provides the second transference. From this picture, Nietzsche concludes that there is no natural connection between what is perceived in the external world and knowledge.  Rather, the relation between what is out there and my claims to know it is purely conventional.  According to Nietzsche, language is not a reflection of essences.    Our knowledge does not reflect the deep structures of reality; rather, it is a mere human construct.

Failure to recognize this state of affairs is, for Nietzsche, one of the central problems with the scientist or rational human being in contrast with the artist or intuitive person. That is, the scientist, who, of course, also constructs metaphors, takes his metaphors to be the truth, the way things really are.  According to Nietzsche, the scientist takes his metaphors too seriously; he ossifies them, whereas the artist recognizes their fluidity and transiency.  To be sure, these metaphors do serve practical and pragmatic purposes.  They help us to affirm ourselves and aid in our self-preservation to some degree.  However, when we forget about their provisional nature, we come to believe that our conceptual edifices are immovable.  When this occurs, the metaphors harden, they ossify-rather, we ossify them, and turn them into columbaria.   (A columbarium is a Roman vault for funeral urns!)  So the rational human being has lost touch with the metaphorical origins of human knowledge and lives his life constructing conceptual systems that display “the regularity of a Roman columbarium” (112).  According to Nietzsche, our (rationalistic) tendency to forget the earthy, metaphorical rootedness of human knowledge, moves us to increasing levels of abstraction-abstractions which we then take to be reality.  These systems of abstractions are likened to a columbarium; they are life-denying and lead to death.  (By the way, I think his critique of the scientist also applies to the philosopher and the theologian).

Clearly, Nietzsche values the flow of life and wants us to remain close to our, so to speak, humble origins.  His warnings against taking our conceptual edifices to be the reality and the one and only way to truthfully describe and explain the world are compelling and worthy of our reflection.  Part of his critique also involves cautioning against pride and calling us to acknowledge our finitude-two points that Christians ought to take seriously.  Yet, as a Christian, there are certain matters, which are central to the Christian narrative and understanding of reality, which Nietzsche fails to consider.  For example, according to the Christian tradition, the created order is now not as it originally was.  In fact, St. Paul, employing a number of earthy metaphors, tells us that creation has been subjected to futility and eagerly awaits its eschatological renewal.

The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (NRSV, Rom 8:19-25).

So there is a sense in which, for the Christian, life and the world as now experienced involves a struggle against the natural world-a natural world, which groans and awaits a final release from its dislocation and disintegration.  In other words, something more than a return to the flow of life or even a recognition of the metaphorical origins of knowledge is needed to overcome the prideful tendencies of which Nietzsche speaks.  According to the Christian narrative, a kind of cosmic redemption is needed-a redemption that not only saves us from our pride but also transforms and renews the present state of creation itself.  This is of course precisely what St. Paul claims Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection accomplished and is accomplishing.  St. Paul doesn’t deny that our life in-between Christ’s advents is a life of eschatological tension both within ourselves and with creation as a whole.

In addition to St. Paul’s use of metaphors, we should also consider the use of metaphor and mythical language in the Genesis creation account.  For example, the author of Genesis speaks of a solid dome upon which fixed stars hang (the raqia).  This mythical description, of course, doesn’t square with contemporary science and our current understanding of the sky, stars etc.  Nonetheless, God chose to condescend to the then-current conceptual categories and to use this mythical language to speak of his creation, as his point was not to give us a scientific account of the universe but to proclaim himself as the Creator.  So perhaps we could say that God himself is more like the artist, who plays with metaphor and recognizes its inherent limitations.  Yet, he is unlike the artist (at least the artist in Nietzsche’s description) in that he is in fact trying to teach us something about reality itself, the reality that he himself brought into being and the reality which he is.

Lastly, perhaps participating in liturgical life provides a way to properly acknowledge our finitude and to combat modernity’s “columbaric” tendencies which Nietzsche so aptly describes.  For example, in the Ash Wednesday liturgy of the Anglican/Episcopal Church, as the priest marks our foreheads with ashes, s/he says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Of course, for those in Christ, there’s more to story. We, who are in Christ, shall be resurrected in glorified bodies).  In addition, participation in the Eucharist reminds us through humble material means (bread and wine) of our need for spiritual nourishment, that is, our need to be nourished by Christ’s resurrection life. Confession of sin reminds us of our weakness, our proclivity to idolatry and our continual, moment-by-moment need for God’s grace and forgiveness.  The preaching of the word keeps us rooted in the Christian story and challenges us to submit to God’s, as it were, “interpretation” of reality.

How fitting on this Easter Sunday to allow Nietzsche to teach us about the power and relevance of the Christ-event.  Whether ancient, stone columbariua or modern, conceptual columbaria, neither are able to contain Christus Victor.  He is risen!  He is risen indeed!


[1] All citations are taken from an anthology edited by Lawrence E. Cahoone, From Modernism to Postmodernism:  An Expanded Anthology, 2nd edition, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).

Gadamer on Romanticism’s Mirror Image of the Enlightenment

According to Gadamer, romanticism shares a certain schema of the philosophy of history with the Enlightenment. In its reaction to the Enlightenment, romanticism takes this schema as a premise, viz., “the schema of the conquest of mythos by logos.”  Gadamer goes on to say, “[w]hat gives this schema its validity is the presupposition of the progressive retreat of magic in the world. It is supposed to represent progress in the history of the mind, and precisely because romanticism disparages this development, it takes over the schema itself as a self-evident truth.  It shares the presupposition of the Enlightenment and only reverses its values, seeking to establish the validity of what is old simply on the fact that it is old […] the romantic reversal of the Enlightenment’s criteria of value actually perpetuates the abstract contrast between myth and reason.  All criticism of the Enlightenment now proceeds via this romantic mirror image of the Enlightenment.  Belief in the perfectibility of reason suddenly changes into the perfection of the ‘mythical’ consciousness and finds itself reflected in a paradisiacal state before the ‘fall’ of thought” (Truth and Method, pp. 274-275).