It’s in the nature of an intellectual quest to be undefined. To name it and define it is to wrap it up and tie the knot. What is left? A finished, already outdated mode of culture, something like a brand of soap, in other words, an idea. (J.P. Sartre. Search for a Method).
One of or probably the premise I have been prosecuting has been that philosophy, Platonism, is the complex of being, truth and subject. To make it worse, I also contend that metaphysics is simply another name for philosophy insofar as philosophy is the discursive thought of this complex. Thus, when we hear the clamour almost everywhere in the 20th C for the end of metaphysics, this is also a call for the end of philosophy and as the same thing, the end of Plato. Clearly not everyone who advocates for the end of metaphysics thinks they are advocating for the end of philosophy and as we know, for some, to be liberated from the former – which is then it’s negation – is to liberate philosophy from the shackle, precisely, of Platonism – which has held it back.
As we have seen, many of the ancients, invoking Socrates as exemplar and muse, divorce philosophy as a lived experience or action in the present or serial practice or even care of the self – body and mind – from any, extra-phusis, thus extra-natural or extra-experiential speculations. Indeed, respectful as most of these ancient discourses are of Plato, who after all gives them, for the most part, their Socrates, the negative distinction between them becomes the fulcrum upon which a real division can be opened up. The lived life of Socrates, opposed to the ‘extra-mural’ project of Plato – we might say – or action over thought or indeed the primacy and irreducibility of existence or being-there over some Being or Good as thought or even being as what acts in its being.
In this direction we can say that Existentialism is concerned first and foremost with subject-being: with the act that separates and conjoins at once but is not and cannot be Being as such, and as such it accords primacy to an existence over any possible essence, as the famous saying goes – which is to say in another register dear to Kierkegaard and Sartre, the primacy of freedom over ground; a radical human freedom.
This is what we attend to to here – existentialism as subject-being and how this is developed in Kierkegaard and Sartre. Let first me note the confused genealogy I have going. Why start with existentialism when it really is a development out of phenomenology? Well, it’s simply because of Kierkegaard – who clearly comes before what we now call phenomenology (sorry, Hegel) post-Husserl and who is without doubt an existentialist before it’s time. It's a temporality perhaps peculiar to philosophy that being contemporary might require a break with chronology. So in this session I will give a brief and general snapshot of some of what pertains to existentialism, especially concerning the question of the subject who must be, to be, so to speak, what is not being per se. Which is not the same as saying it is without being. Then I’ll speak to certain aspects of Kierkegaard and Sartre that bring their projects into focus
In text-book style language, demonstrating once again the importance of a familiar distinction: existentialism is said to focus on the ‘uniqueness of each human individual as distinguished from abstract universal human qualities’. Robert Solomon, whose tone in his introductory remarks to his book, Existentialism – which includes all sorts of literary figures as well as Kierkegaard and Sartre – I would describe as celebratory, all too celebratory, argues that in the first instance ‘existentialism is an attitude, one instantly recognisable in and of the modern age’ (he’s writing this in 1974, which might have already been late given that the attitude, at least in France, had well shifted. But anyway).
It’s an attitude philosophised: ‘what it’s not’, Solomon continues, unconvincingly in my view, ‘is a revolt against western rationalism per se and nor is it a continuation of the grand philosophical projects’ – Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx etc. – rather, he says: ‘It is an attitude that recognises the unresolvable confusion of the human world, yet resists the all-too-human temptation to resolve the confusion by grasping toward whatever appears or can be made to appear firm or familiar— reason, God, nation, authority, history, work, tradition, or the “otherworldly,” whether of Plato, Christianity, or utopian fantasy.’
So in passing, note this term ‘unresolvable’. It carries all the ontological weight. And note it especially, because existentialism supposes the capacity to choose, which is for Sartre the capacity to think, as fundamental. To think is not to be, we might say, yet here Solomon represents as at its centre, something unthinkable for us; that the unresolvable is and that as this lineage shows, the pretension to resolution is essentially a bad faith.
There is a sort of nihilism here – properly speaking. Not the petty passive kind we find around today, which just accepts everything but with a grumpy look and a kick of the tyres. Nihilism, properly speaking, which Nietzsche affirms, is to look squarely and self consciously at our world or at life as such and affirm or nihilate that it is ‘broken’ as Gabriel Marcel said, that it is ‘ambiguous’ as for de Beauvoir, ‘dislocated’ for Merleau-Ponty, ‘a world into which we are ‘thrown’ and ‘condemned’’, for Heidegger, ‘a world indifferent or even ‘absurd’’ for Camus and for Karl Jaspers, speaking to the post WW1 situation, the ‘sclerosis of objectivity – materialized in technology and our subjection to it – is the annihilation of existence’.While for Sartre, we are ‘abandoned’ and ‘free’.
Note Sartre’s optimism, which is really the affect of subjectivity as such given that what ‘there is’ of being in the world is down to the subjects being what it is. Which is to say, both that Being itself is not subject and that the subject makes of being (and itself) what it decides.
Existentialism as premise includes all these orientations or dis-orientations which are sites of subjective determination: all we were supposedly familiar with as orientations to our world have exposed themselves, in one way or another, as some sort of idealism with regard to man’s-being and have necessarily failed.
Basically, this idealism has falsified man’s relation to world and thus both the world itself and what is man. Existentialism as philosophy is the philosophy that not only refuses any idealisation of being or world but goes a bit further and on the basis of existence as such – the non-ideal real of things, then, and not the ideal being of things – thinks through what it is to live, as Nietzsche said, without ideal.
In Sartre’s famous words, being is nothing; which is both axiomatic for existentialism proper – the object of the subject – and the basis thereby of its demonstration as philosophy.
Reductively, if existence is what and all there is, then being is not something else, it is nothing – not just to us but tout court. What we call being is in the world, so to speak, as what becomes – being is acting we might say or acting is being manifest qua being. So existentialism is not a fixing of the disorientation of the subject in the face of a world without ideal but an affirming of it as the very basis of our freedom or subjectivity – that it is for us to not be what being is – which is nothing.
Man is something, which Being is not. Man is as what is possible for man. If there is no ideal for which we are subject then there is nothing to orient our subjectivity but ourselves. The subject is the locus of any possibility vis a vis the world or indeed of any world at all, we might even say. The subject is essentially self-consciousness in the world. But at the same time the subject in existentialism is not some laissez faire monster doing whatever the hell it wants in pursuit of its interests alone. There is no knowledge of that, we might say.
Subjectively speaking, then, there is an ‘I’ but it has no fixed place in the world as such – which all the idealisms have supposed to show and that includes the stupidity that is called individualism. This ‘I’ lives in the world ‘un-reconciled’ and nothingness, being the truth of being as such, given no essence precedes an existence which would be the truth of being itself, its positive condition of possibility – thus being for itself is being in itself in the form of the subject – and thereby consciousness is the act by which being as such will be and the subject is not then a being who acts.
For Sartre, to preempt a bit, existentialism, he says in Existentialism is a Humanism, is therefore, as free of these idealisations, ‘the least scandalous, the most austere of doctrines’. It is, he goes on, ‘a doctrine which makes human life possible and, in addition, declares that every truth and every action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity’. The subject is neither the imitation or representation of its ideal – and thus always in some way its lack; nor is it the token of some necessary type – the subject is the being there of being such that there is no-thing other to be.
If we wanted to find a formula for the existential attitude it might be that one is in the world but separated from it and the lived, step-by-step experience of that separation is self-consciousness – thus the modality, clearly, is one of negation. Or to slightly paraphrase Sartre’s words themselves: ‘you can always make something out of what you've been made into.’ Consciousness as act is the negation of the not-being of the subject. It marks an individual beyond individualism – so, free from its ideal (in itself and for itself and finally, in Sartre, for others too) – and is at the same time the universal experience of any subject at all.
Sartre argues, in fact that the self is not ‘in’ consciousness, much less identical to it. The self is out there ‘in the world, like the self of another.’ In fact, like every other. In other words, the self is an ‘ongoing project in the world with other people; it is not simply self-awareness or self-consciousness as such’. It’s not a well-being but lack of being, being. But as we will see, the Cartesian axiomatic – I think, therefore I am – is the starting place of this singularly universal freedom. As in Kierkegaard, who speaks of ‘conversion’, the assertion of this ‘I’ is precisely the negation of what it is not, which in the act realises the freedom to be what I am. Existentialism is thought of negation itself. There can be no other ‘truth’ than this, Sartre says in EH.
There is, I think, a real tension here between the singular and the universal. The existential subject is a subject insofar as it is separated from the world and every other subject. Self-consciousness – which should perhaps be written self/consciousness – is the manner of this separation. Note, the subject is self/consciousness – so neither one or the other. But every subject – in being other to itself as much as to any other – is the subject of self-consciousness. The manifest truth of the subject qua subject is self/consciousness, which is at the same time different in each manifest subject.
Sartre, for one, grasps this tension as explicit. Clearly, existentialism can think back from existence toward what it might effect as the thought of it – thus the possibility of a universal prescription upon this very singular existence is secondary and not primary, existential and not essential if you like but nevertheless in some way the thought of all qua subject is being thought here. Indeed, Sartre does invoke Kant’s Categorical Imperative – to act as if your action would be universally applicable – but as an ethic of the subject and not as its ontological or ‘legal’ justification.
Of course the hold out, for both Sartre and Kierkegaard in fact, is that not everyone becomes subject in this sense – which is to say, becomes self-conscious, or authentic or converts, which is to say, both assumes the world as it is – absurd, ambiguous, broken, non-ideal – and decides for it as such by acting upon it therein: thus not acting as if it were otherwise and ideal, as it is given to us ‘to know’ by all the usual means of state and culture and religion and so on.
Hence the universality of the subject is only qua subject and this even if the world of the existentialist – broken, dislocated etc. – is not a choice it makes but is the world of all. The choice made is for this world, which is not Ideal – which is to choose then against the ignorance that supposes this very ideal as what is true of Being for us. The subject is the becoming not ignorant of what the Ideal supposes – but it’s not for all that, a knowledge.
Indeed all action is our choice precisely – because faced with the lack of the ideal, we have no choice but to choose – nothing directs or restrains us otherwise. So an existentialist chooses for the only choice possible by necessity – which is that of the lack of the ideal. And then goes on to prosecute this lack vis a vis everything the world throws at it. The more it ‘refuses the blandishments of the world’ the more the subject of self-consciousness becomes conscious of itself – in and for itself. In Solomon’s words, ‘every tension increases self-consciousness, every increase in self-consciousness exaggerates the irresolvable tension with the world that is always there. The existentialist qua subject becomes more sophisticated, as her feelings become formulated into ideas,’ he says, ‘and this then gives us the possibility of existentialism as philosophy.’
So clearly the existential subject comes first – like Socrates – and then out of these material conditions of lived experience as separated more and more from the world as it is, i.e. as lacking ideal, the subject starts to think of the complex of the world and its separation. It gives concepts to the experience – in Kierkegaard for example, ‘irony’, in Nietzsche we get the joyful yet despairing isolation of Zarathustra – more character than concept I suppose.
Anyway, this practiced separation, which is at once the taking of the world itself as ones own, and thus being responsible for it – hence in Kierkegaard anxiety and despair – gives rise to its idea. To me this last bit is very Platonic even if it goes against the grain of Platonism, which supposes that the Idea gives rise to any subject – which existentialism opposes. In addition, existentialism doesn't suppose this idea is of being as such precisely because it pertains only to any possible being-subject and the situation or world, which is theirs.
What is critical to existentialism here is that the very category of the subject is not assumed into some form of absolutism – individual, natural or historical. It can’t be because, not unlike in Freud, it is not the unification of self and world but is the very subject of the split, it is double, not One. Thus when people bang on about ‘being themselves’ we can legitimately ask, which one? This is because there clearly is no self in the sense of a unity and because consciousness as Sartre says is nothing or no-thing just as there is no-thing-ness. This lack of unity is the condition of our real freedom. This is why that crap about ‘being yourself’ is the epitome today of real servitude and subjection – bad faith – and not subjectivity at all, even if it is supposed to resound precisely as that. It’s another form of the old Ideal and thus is a form of self-deception or bad faith as are such forms of determinism, since these involve lying to oneself about the ontological fact of one’s non-self-coincidence and the flight from concomitant responsibility for ‘choosing’ to remain that way. It’s not surprising that courage is one of Kierkegaard’s watchwords for the subject – and one of Plato’s!
As Solomon writes: ‘self-consciousness is neither a subject aware nor an awareness of an object (the self)’ – thus not a subject of knowledge: Rather it is more ‘a motivation, an attitude that illuminates the world as well as the individual in the world’. Meaning it is act or the activity of constituting the objects of consciousness, and for Sartre, note, there certainly are objects in the world – think of that damnable tree in Nausea; it is irreducibly just there! In a late interview Sartre notes that he has all his life tried to give a philosophical foundation for realism: which is to say: ‘how to give man both his autonomy and his reality among real objects avoiding idealism without lapsing into a mechanistic materialism.’
Self-consciousness, then, is not, strictly speaking, awareness of self, for there is no ‘self’. Rather, self-consciousness in the existential sense is this very recognition that there is no such self. Any ‘self’ is ‘a chosen course of action and values, something one creates in the world. Self-consciousness does not add anything to consciousness which is the ‘what is not being and mark of beings nothing-ness. It is neither, Solomon argues, ‘a Lockean ‘turning back on itself’ nor a Cartesian reflective substance. Self/consciousness robs the world of its authority, its given values, and it robs consciousness of its innocence. Self-consciousness is not a premise or an object for study. It is rather the perspective within which existentialism attempts to focus itself.’
So existentialism is thinking self-consciousness as this originary double – not reducible or relative to any conception of self already given to be or to any conception of consciousness either or to some articulated or ideal relation between them. Self-consciousness, then, is unlike and even opposed to all established values and forms of evaluation, and functions like the axiomatic of existentialism – the principal of its movement as such, whose veracity it establishes. So generalise the exception and delegitimise the ideal or subtract the ideal and change the world, maybe we can say that?
Let’s turn now to our two exemplars, Kierkegaard and Sartre in order to both concretise what we have generalised and to draw out some more what is this subject and thereby what is or is not being and truth for it.
We’ll start with Kierkegaard. Not only is this chronological but he is pretty much the starting point for all discussion of existentialism. The split between them might be marked by this: Kierkegaard manages to declaim the absolute freedom of the subject, so integral to existentialism, away from the great systematisations of thought, from Plato’s impetus through to Kant and Hegel, while maintaining the facticity of God. Indeed, in some ways we could even say that radical subjective freedom is what marks in man the truth of God – for nothing of God is slave to necessity.
For Sartre this is all true except that God is dead. So the same subjective formation, but without the need to anchor freedom in the facticity of a God the philosophers have tried to make absolute and thus Ideal, rather than singular and so Real. For Kierkegaard this facticity, which cannot be reduced to the Idea, is the freedom authentic to man – which is to say, the subject is the negation of this reduction: for Sartre, God is really only the reified Ideal of the philosophers – the impossibility in fact of any subject insofar as man would be merely what fulfils this ideal.
So I’ll just set the ‘scene of Kierkegaard’ real quick because speaking about radical subjectivity or the singular active freedom as the truth of man would seem to suggest that the lived life of the thinker in question would have some relevance. And it’s true Kierkegaard, whose life in the main was uneventful, except for the incident with Regine, that orients so much of the action, does write his own life into his ‘philosophy’, for which reason Alain Badiou, not at all disparagingly, calls Kierkegaard’s philosophy an anti-philosophy, and more tellingly Kierkegaard often does this in the guise of various pseudonyms – as if he is trying, a la Plato’s Sophist, to get at what he is by way of all that which he is also not. ‘My role’, he says, ‘is the joint role of being the secretary and, quite ironically, the dialectically reduplicated author of the author or the authors.’
Indeed for Kierkegaard the task of constructing the subject out of the variations in writing is a part of the self-education of the self, we might say, at once divorcing this education from any sort of psychologising or historicising or biographising; which is to fall back into idealism in one way or another. He says: ‘The task must be made difficult, for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted’, which, again, is a very Platonic thing to say. And moreover, despite the variations in voice, in style, in approach, in the movement of the thought itself, and so on, Kierkegaard supposes that there is an overall coherence to what he wrote and thought – it’s as much there as it is to be discovered by the reader – which exhibits in itself that tension we are speaking of between being, truth and subject. Which requires, one way or another, we begin here where we are in order to get to anywhere at all.
Soren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-55) was born in Copenhagen, in the mid-nineteenth century, a city of about 125,000 people. As we know he influenced not only the French – Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir and so on but also, with the early twentieth-century German translations, the theologians Karl Barth and Martin Heidegger who, as John D. Caputo puts it, ‘mediated’ him to the French.
Kierkegaard pretty much spent his entire life in Copenhagen. Caputo neatly divides Kierkegaard’s working life into the consequences of three crisis: The first in 1841 when he broke his engagement with Regine Olsen, a woman ten years his junior, because he said that 'God had lodged a veto'. This led to what Caputo describes as ‘an astonishing flood of books, some of Europe's greatest works of philosophy, written under a dozen different pseudonyms, poured out in the next four years; In these works he forged the concept of 'subjective' or 'existential truth' – which is and remains the type of truth one would die for; this being precisely what marks any individual as irreplaceable.’
The second ‘crisis’ was in 1846. He figured he had had enough of the literary calling and was going to take his masters in theology to become a pastor, but he got into a fight with a Danish journal that had poked fun at him and his work and so he decided to keep on writing against just this sort of vulgarity lest people think he gave up because of the lampooning and criticism. Again he said ‘God forestalled him from this path’ (note the negation). ‘A second series of works resulted over the next seven years, almost all signed in his own name and unmistakably religious in character, launched by a prescient analysis of the 'levelling' effects of the press, the first modern mass means of communication.’
The third crisis came in 1854 with the death of Jacob Mynster, the bishop and primate of the Danish Church and an old family friend. All along ‘Kierkegaard had been cultivating a radical concept of Christianity that pitted authentic 'Christianity' against the worldliness of 'Christendom', namely, the comfortable Christian bourgeois class of modern Europe. The ecclesiastical leaders of the day rightly suspected that they were the ultimate targets of this distinction and took umbrage at Kierkegaard's fantastic call to introduce 'Christianity' into Denmark.’ Going down swinging, we might say, Kierkegaard died in 1855.
Kierkegaard’s whole effort can be radically reduced to this simple prescription: “What it means to exist; . . . what it means to be a human being,’ or what it means to become a self, a person, an authentic individual. Like Socrates, whom he also invokes as actively exemplary – Kierkegaard penetratingly applies the dictum ‘the unreflected life is not worth living.’ But he doubles this. His Christianity, which is clearly of a rather unorthodox if humanist kind necessitates him avoiding or at least succumbing to what might be the effective and negative result: that the reflected life may be unlivable. Socrates maxim didn’t suppose this answer, I don't think. Kierkegaard’s is then a philosophy of possibility and hope by way precisely of addressing and cutting right into both of the pitfalls of any philosophical enquiry which premises some form of the Ideal: thoughtless superficiality with regard to it and thoughtful dissolution as its negation.
Thus for Kierkegaard both are symptomatic of what he calls ‘an age of disintegration, an esthetic, enervating disintegration’ – a theme common to all existentialism – and yet it is amidst this that something must be found to hold. The locus of this holding fast to nothing of the world is of course our diverted subject. And it’s really only this figure of the subject I want to speak about with Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard orients this subject or rather depicts the truth of subjectivity as irony and he does this with reference to Socrates. It is not, however, like later liberal scholarship, which supposes a Socrates who exists and then practices an ironic method. For Kierkegaard, Socrates is the exemplar of the irony of subjective existence as such. His very activity establishes the irony of subjective existence vis a vis a being it would be the appearance of, and also of the knowledge that would reflect this relationship as true of it. The subject is the place of the displacement of this metaphysical ordering precisely, and for Kierkegaard, this is what Socrates is exemplary of. He is not the liberal subject coming to order – be it natural or divine or legal – but that which is out-of-place with regard to any such determination.
Here is what he says of the place of Socrates, in one of the Postscripts…
‘In the Socratic view, every human being is himself the midpoint, and the whole world focuses only on him because his self-knowledge is God’s knowledge. Moreover, this is how Socrates understood himself, and in his view this is how every human being must understand himself, and by virtue of that understanding he must understand his relation to the single individual, always with equal humility and with equal pride. For that purpose, Socrates had the courage and self-collectedness to be sufficient unto himself, but in his relations to others he also had the courage and self-collectedness to be merely an occasion even for the most stupid person.’
He goes on:
‘What rare magnanimity— rare in our day, when the pastor is little more than the deacon, when every second person is an authority, while all these distinctions and all this considerable authority are mediated in a common lunacy and in a commune naufragium [common shipwreck], because since no human being has ever truly been an authority or has benefited anyone else by being that or has ever really managed successfully to carry his dependent along, there is better success in another way, for it never fails that one fool going his way takes several others along with him.’
You can see several things: that the Socratic figure, rare as such, stands in and apart – separate yet engaged, of but not by, singular but universal – like, precisely, an irony. Kierkegaard says at one point, invoking what he assumes to be Plato’s idea of Socrates, who would be he who pushes Plato toward the Idea and who is in contradistinction to the Socrates Xenophon depicts: ‘he disdains the useful, is indifferent to the established [Bestaaende], is an out-and-out enemy of the mediocrity that in empiricism is the highest, an object of pious worship, but for speculation a troll changeling.’
You can see also that despite this exemplary figure – one he also couples in comparison with Jesus – the modern age of the bourgeoisie and its morality and thus of the social itself is vulgar and ignorant by comparison and this because precisely of what it knows as knowledge and the relation to it that affords its function. In this part of the work indeed, Kierkegaard is concerned with the very question of the truth – what would the knowledge of it be and how could it be transmitted. For if the truth can be learned then it must be assumed that it both is and is not. The learner doesn't know it and so it does not exist as the knowledge of the world but as what is sought, and so, unknown, it must exist to be sought.
Works used and or cited:
R. Solomon, Existentialism.
John D. Caputo, How to Read Kierkegaard.
Charles Guignon (Ed.), The Existentialists
Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark A. Wrathall (Ed.) A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Notebooks for an Ethics.
Walter Kaufmann (Ed.), Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre.
Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Ed.), The Essential Kierkegaard.