Monday, September 7, 2015

Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy

Irrational Man: A Study in Existential PhilosophyIrrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy by William Barrett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am not adequate to the task. I look at this . . . monument to Existential philosophy, and I face a void of thought yawning wide in the dark depths beneath my skull. How could I ever capture the thoughts and feelings I experienced while immersed in this sea of emotional and intellectual self-realization? This book is a startling revelation, and I am no prophet. Still, I will try to relate the unrelatable.

Barrett starts with a section entitled "The Present Age," relating the present-history of the Existential movement as it existed in the late 1950s to early 1960s. I have little to say about that, except to point you to an excellent treatment of Chapter 3, on "The Testimony of Modern Art," by the sagacious Glenn Russell. It was, in fact, Glenn's review that pointed me to this profound book.

Section 2, "The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition" is where things really started coming together for me. Here is where one finds the clearest statement about how existentialism differs from all the philosophy (grounded in Plato, more or less) before it:

Plato's is the classic and indeed archetypal expression of a philosophy which we may now call essentialism, which holds that essence is prior in reality to existence. Existentialism, by contrast, is the philosophy that holds existence to be prior to essence.

In other words, we are not dealing here with metaphysics. That doesn't mean that existentialism and belief in a higher being are incompatible - Kierkegaard belies this - but regardless of belief system, the existentialist sees that there is an inevitable end to existence as we know it. In Pascal's words:

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frighted, and am astonished being here rather than there, why now rather than then.

But please be clear that this is not nihilism we are talking about here. Utter hopelessness is not necessarily the end result of existentialism (though Nietzsche's philosophy prophesied future nihilism, as will be noted later). In fact, it is the realization of the inevitable end that provides us with an appreciation for life. In describing a scene from Dostoevski's The Idiot, Barrett notes that the feelings expressed by Myshkin likely reflect those of Dostoevski himself:

In this story, which describes Dostoevski's own reprieve after he had been condemned to be executed by a firing squad, is the ultimate affirmation: in the face of death life has an absolute value. The meaning of death is precisely its revelation of this value.

In section three, Barrett provides an overview of the four pillar-figures of existentialism: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartres. Besides having the most difficult set of philosophic last names to pronounce, these four thinkers put forth complex, nuanced views on being (or, in the case of Heidegger, "Being") that comprise the canon of existentialist thought. Having no desire to rewrite Barrett's book in the for of a book review, I will just note a few items that I found thought-provoking and/or essential to the understanding of what existentialism is or what it is composed of, a 30,000 foot thought map, blurred by the high speed at which I pass overhead.

I was struck, again and again, by the simplicity of argument put forward by everyone except Sartres. Kierkegaard seems to be very much "of the earth" and balks between the lines at the academics, particularly the academic philosophers, who had gone before him. I don't have time to outline all the reasons for his feeling this way, but suffice it to say that his upbringing had much to do with it, as well as the broken heart he suffered when he gave up the opportunity of marriage to a woman named Regina. This choice that he had made comprised his existential crisis. He had given up love . . . for what? Philosophy?

Philosophers before Kierkegaard had speculated about the proposition "I exist," but it was he who observed the crucial fact they had forgotten: namely, that my own existence is not at all a matter of speculation to me, but a reality in which I am personally and passionately involved. I do not find this existence reflected in the mirror of the mind, I encounter it in life; it is my life, a current flowing invisibly around all my mental mirrors. But if existence is not mirrored as a concept in the mind, where then do we really come to grips with it? For Kierkegaard this decisive encounter with the Self lies in the Either/Or choice. When he gave up Regina, thus forever giving up the solaces of ordinary life for which he longed, Kierkegaard was encountering his own existence as a reality more potent and drastic than any concept. And so any man who chooses or is forced to choose decisively - for a lifetime, and therefore for eternity since only one life is given us - experiences his own existence as something beyond the mirror of thought. He encounters the Self that he is not in the detachment of thought, but in the involvement and pathos of choice.

Now, where Kierkegaard was a lover, Nietzsche was a fighter. Perhaps it was the progressive madness that slowly took hold of his mind toward the end of his life, but Nietzsche's thought was not simply that life should be examined through the existentialist lens, but that power, as expressed in his work Will to Power was something to be pursued in the face of the loss of God and the values reinforced by institutions that claim to worship God. In this way, Nietzsche becomes a prophet, in a way, for our day, predicting that future history (that which would come after Nietzsche) would be an ongoing struggle for the new value: Power. The end result of this struggle must inevitably end in hopelessness, which we can term "nihilism":

Power as the pursuit of more power inevitably founders in the void that lies beyond itself. The Will to Power begets the problem of nihilism. Here again Nietzsche stands as the philosopher of the period, for he prophesied remarkably that nihilism would be the shadow, in many guises and forms, that would haunt the twentieth century. Supposing man does not blow himself and his earth to bits, and that he really becomes the master of this planet. What then? He pushes off into interstellar space. And then? Power for power's sake, no matter how far the power is extended, leaves always the dread of the void beyond. The attempt to stand face to face with that void is the problem of nihilism.

Heidegger's existentialism proves to be much less fatalistic. In fact, one might propose that there is such a thing as existential optimism and, if so, Heidegger is its champion. At the least, one must view Heidegger as having a less-stark view of Being than Nietzsche. Rather than viewing the self as a "thing," Heidegger focuses on what it is to "be". This can be a difficult concept, but it is central to Heidegger's philosophy: We must not view our isolated ego as a thing that is within us, which is set up in contrast to the rest of the things in the world. Rather, we should think of ourselves as Being (I am using the verb-as-noun here, not simply the verb and not simply the noun) "spread over a field or region, which is the world of its care or concern." This Being, however, does not negate the self. In fact, Being our actual, true Self is the ultimate goal of anyone faced with the limits of their own mortality. Unfortunately, most of society chooses to bury itself in television, surrogate celebrity life, thrill-seeking, substance abuse, and any other sort of distraction that will numb the Self to the fear of facing its own inevitable annihilation:

Because it is less fearful to be "the One" than to be a Self, the modern world has wonderfully multiplied all the devices of self-evasion.

But, paradoxically, to gain one's Self, one must lose oneself. In this way, the true Self can become connected with Being:

To lose oneself in walking down a country lane is, literally, to lose the self that is split off from nature: to enter the region of Being where subject and object no longer confront each other in murderous division.

This is not to say that the experience of Being an existential person is something that comes on soft clouds on a comfortable spring day. No, it is quite the opposite. It is the prospect of death, the most stark and intimate of ends for each and every person, that opens the door to Being:

Only by taking my death into myself, according to Heidegger, does an authentic existence become possible for me. Touched by this interior angel of death, I cease to be the impersonal and social. One among many, as Ivan Ilyich was, and I am free to become myself. Though terrifying, the taking of death into ourselves is also liberating: it frees us from servitude to the petty cares that threaten to engulf our daily life and thereby opens us to the essential projects by which we can make our lives personally and significantly our own. Heidegger calls this the condition of "freedom-toward-death" or "resoluteness".

Now while the name "Sartres" is that which is most closely associated with existentialism in the eyes of popular culture, I would argue that Sartres was the great pretender. Read his work carefully, and you will see that most of it, at its root, is mimetic: an echo of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and even Heidegger. I say "even" because, while Sartres does echo the notion of self posited by Heidegger, he pulls the concept of Being back into the camp of Cartesian dualism from which Heidegger hoped to banish it. Sartres divides being into two kinds: Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself. Being-in-itself re-introduces "thingness" (my own, inadequate term) to the existentialist discussion. Barrett uses the example of a stone: "A stone is a stone; it is what it is; and in being just what it is, no more and no less, the being of the thing always coincides with itself." Being-for-itself is conceptualized as consciousness of being beyond oneself, spatially, temporally, and in the realm of possibilities and potentials.

This notion of the For-itself may seem obscure, but we encounter it on the most ordinary occasions. I have been to a party; I come away, and with a momentary pang of sadness I say, "I am not myself." It is necessary to take this proposition quite literally as something that only man can have the feeling of coming to myself after having lost or estranged me from myself. This is the first and immediate level on which the term yields its meaning. But the next and deeper level of meaning occurs when the feeling of sadness leads me to think in a spirit of self-reproach that I am not myself in a still more fundamental sense: I have not realized so many of the plans or projects that make up my being; I am not myself because I do not measure up to myself. Beneath this level too there is still another and deeper meaning, rooted in the very nature of my being: I am not myself, and I can never be myself, because y being stretching out beyond itself at any given moment exceeds itself. I am always simultaneously more and less than I am.

This passage shows the way in which Barrett has taken some complex ideas and boiled them down to their simple essence existence (!) and made them more easily digestible to the untrained armchair philosopher (I am looking at myself my Self). Barrett's synthesis of the preceding work takes place in his essay "The Place of the Furies," which, outside of some less-accessible appendices, wraps up the book. He notes that while some balk at the idea of irrationality as a viable philosophy, putting the idea of rationality up on an indestructible pedestal to be worshiped as some kind of god, that "despite the increase in the rational ordering of life in modern times, men have not become the least bit more reasonable in the human sense of the word. A perfect rationality might not even be incompatible with psychosis; it might in fact, even lead to the latter." But he does not negate the need for rationality, only that it should be put in its proper place alongside the irrational, both of them acknowledged as necessary to life. But he does warn that, without the irrational, as symbolized by the Greek Furies, humanity will lose the edge necessary to achieve full satisfaction of being.

The Furies are really to be revered and not simply bought off; in fact, they cannot be bought off (not even by our modern tranquilizers and sleeping pills) but are to be placated only through being given their just and due respect. They are the darker side of life, but in their own way as holy as the rest. Indeed, without the there would be no experience of the holy at all. Without the shudder of fear or the trembling of dread man would never be brought to stand face to face with himself or his life; he would only drift aimlessly off into the insubstantial realm of Laputa.

And, in order to remind myself of what I have learned here, I will return to this book again, perhaps many times. This one, while not a life changer per se (thought it would have been, had I read and understood it as a teenager), it is definitely a life informer. I can't fully express the rush of synaptical connections and emotional response that I felt while reading, no, studying this book.

Again, I am totally inadequate to the task.

I am Me!

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  1. For a better Sartre, check out his sometime girlfriend Simone de Beauvoir, particularly Ethics of Ambiguity.