What You Should Think About Existentialism

November 30, 2007

“In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world.”

–Franz Kafka

In some circles, existential philosophy has the reputation of an angry teenager. Yet that reputation is different in crucial ways from the “nobody understands me” cliché of adolescence. The trials and tribulations of a typical experience with puberty are made to seem more intense by a host of physical and chemical changes. Little by little, young people must cope with a range of adult issues for the very first time. Like teenage acne, teenage angst is unsightly yet also perfectly natural and well understood by adult outsiders, most having endured it themselves.

By contrast, many critiques of existentialism do not stem from any sort of genuine understanding. It is one thing to have passing encounters with notions like individualism and uncertainty. It is a much different thing to delve into the profundities of the human condition without any ideological safety blanket. Many are the clumsy critics, mauling great works of existentialist thought with interpretations bereft of nuance. Rather than embark on a lifelong journey of learning and personal growth, they wallpaper over great mysteries with conformity and faith.

Understanding existentialism begins by understanding the futility of asserting useful absolute knowledge. We can only be ourselves. Even much of what we know of ourselves comes through flawed perceptions and imperfect communications. All the knowledge we possess of entities beyond ourselves is also a product of those perceptions and communications. Then there is the ever-present prospect of faulty inference.

To uphold any teaching as beyond dispute is to assert inhuman perfection exists within human belief. Yet this process does not end where it begins. Accepting the general limits of human understanding is a major step toward transcending the limits of any specific tradition or doctrine. Insofar as existentialists have any particular aim, it is to liberate the human mind from the circumstance of life as a moral marionette. However uncomfortable a question with no answer may be, it has clear advantages over dedicated entanglement in the threads of popular false narratives.

When existentialist ideas were emerging in the 19th century, even ivory towers were populated predominantly by people convinced that questions of morality yielded to certain answers rooted in traditional beliefs. To people firmly anchored in a particular religious or cultural worldview, it is unpleasant to confront the suggestion that life is packed with unknowns and unknowables. From Apollo’s chariot to literal interpretations of Genesis, it seems human nature to favor even outright implausible narratives over comfortable coexistence with the unknown.

Much of existentialist thought is concerned with philosophical deconstruction. This is no haphazard obliteration of all that has come before. Martin Heidegger, among others, favored the term “abbau.” Perhaps the best metaphor for this process involves the architecture of a growing city. To deliberately level the entire place would be enormously harmful. Yet selective demolition of edifices that are not useful in the present is an essential activity that clears space for new projects that serve new needs.

Abbau offers us a minor paradox in that it is at once destructive and constructive. Just as decrepit brick buildings are best dismantled to make way for towers of glass and steel, invalid or obsolete ways of thinking are best abandoned so as to make way for more realistic and useful beliefs. It is a creative form of destruction, as the absence of dogma and falsehoods is itself a phenomenon worthy of creation. It also facilitates further constructiveness to the degree that accepting uncertainty establishes a foundation for later acceptance of novel information.

Existentialists are often accused of discarding all of tradition in order to embrace amoralism or nihilism. Yet this accusation can only be born from some simple-minded interpretation of philosophy. If anything, existentialists encourage the pursuit of knowledge about other moral and philosophical beliefs. After all, it is dogmatic thinking that causes that the vast majority of human thought to be discarded as heterodox. It becomes much less difficult to assimilate the vast diversity of worthwhile human wisdom after recognizing the profound limitations of all human wisdom, including those beliefs one holds most dear.

Centuries earlier, the dawn of astrophysics prompted ecclesiastical authorities to persecute, even kill, people guilty of no greater heresy than challenging official church doctrine on the nature of heavenly objects. Thus it should come as no surprise that existentialist writings condemning absolute faith in religious morality provoked, and in some circles continue to elicit, incendiary hostility from devout worshipers. The rise of secular governance, especially Western civilization’s embrace of free speech as a human right, protected men like Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard from state-sanctioned reprisals for controversial publications.

Those two individuals have a peculiar part to play in the story of existentialism’s rise. Both struggled with inner demons even as they displayed outright genius in the analysis of human morality. If there is any real link between nihilistic brooding and existentialist philosophy, it is not in the actual message of existentialist philosophers but rather in the darkest moments of human drama endured by its pioneers.

Neither of them actually espoused nihilism. Kierkegaard was a devout Christian who observed (as is also apparent today) that a vast gulf divides the teachings of Jesus from the deeds of those most vocal about acting in his name. Yet Kierkegaard was also an existentialist. He granted that his faith was a personal choice rather than a logical conclusion, and he never lost touch with an inner struggle between faith and doubt.

By contrast, Nietzsche leveled many powerful broadsides at the core of religion. His command of religious history conspired with a rapier wit to make his works especially provocative. Even as he wrote about the folly of being certain in beliefs, his literary voice conveyed a merry prankster’s boldness. Traditional thinkers were insulted enough to see sacred teachings linked to the ancient myths from which they were so clearly derived. Adding ridicule to the mix helped to shake some readers out of mental malaise even as it afflicted some critics with obsessive hostility.

To some degree there is a link between Buddhism and existentialism. Some Buddhist teachings promote stark honesty regarding the human condition.  Others emphasize the importance of arriving at beliefs as a continuous process of searching for personal enlightenment transcendent of any established doctrine.

Yet existentialism is no religion. In fact, it actively discourages the kind of orthodoxy that comes with most organized religious activity. The central lesson existentialism teaches regarding religion is that whatever wisdom priests and scripture may contain should be given due consideration right alongside wisdom that contradicts the assertions of clerics and holy texts. The search for insight is also a search for the will to let go of the false security provided by attachments to tradition, faith, conformity, nationality, etc.

Existentialism does not offer a path to the easy satisfaction of transcending doubts. This is good, because that easy satisfaction is the progenitor of dangerous zeal. By acknowledging that the human condition simply does not permit an absolute escape from the unknown, existentialism offers a means to become comfortable with abundant mystery. It shines light on the illusory nature of the comforts of dogmatic belief. By acknowledging the real limits of human knowledge, the stage is set for a rebellion against tradition.

Through this process of rebellion, guided by awareness of human limitations, it becomes possible to constantly refine one’s own beliefs, moral and otherwise. Few people find it controversial to assert that lifelong learning is better than settling for an outlook firmly fixed long before life’s end. Yet few also understand just why and how an adaptive personal approach to morality has more to offer than an inflexible doctrinal approach.

Existentialist philosophy offers a long, and occasionally absurd, journey to the frontiers of human understanding. Still, it seems unsound to me to avoid this journey. Attributing infallibility to any particular tradition or teaching can only retard personal moral growth. If there actually was a creative thought process driving the birth of the universe or the development of its inhabitants, it seems clear that this process left human beings with the capacity to think for ourselves. With or without a God watching over us, it seems better to exercise that capacity for moral reasoning than to settle for uncritical adherence to beliefs promoted by others.

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