The Neglected Philosophies: The Positive Side of Existentialism

What Exactly is Neglected?

Existentialism is not neglected. In fact, it is a household word. There’s Existential Literature, Existential Theater and who hasn’t heard of the Existential Crisis?

However, most people think of Existentialism as depressing and for good reason. They do not know of the positive side of the philosophy, which is often underplayed or neglected entirely.

Existentialism in a Nutshell

For a long time, various books and authors displayed Existential tendencies. The Bible’s Eccliastes is an Existential work, Soren Kierkegaard is considered by many to be the father of Existentialism, and Nietzsche explored existentialist themes, and is also considered an Existentialist by some. But it wasn’t until the nineteenth to twentieth century that Existentialism was recognized as a school of thought.

Existentialism starts with a simple observation: the starting point of philosophy must be the conscious subject and not an ideal of human nature or purpose. By affirming the first and denying the second, we are confronted with a dilemma. How are we to act if we have no purpose or meaning that we are aware of? The only thing we can do is choose, without guidance and take full responsibility for our choices. While all this is happening, death approaches. We see it coming, know what it means, but cannot stop it. Finite, confusing, meaningless, helpless. Life, in short, is absurd.

Unrelenting Pessimism

This is pessimistic enough, but it gets worse. Existentialist works have a grim tone. For instance, Ecclesiastes tells us that life is futile and then we die. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a novel called Nausea in which the “hero” felt nausea on encountering any other object, for he felt it imposed on his own existence. Albert Camus wrote a series of essays called The Myth of Sysyphus that began with the claim that the only serious philosophical question is whether or not to kill ourselves! He then went on to liken us to Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again and repeat the process. Forever.

Even the one ray of light Existentialism offered — freedom — was quickly squashed. Kierkegaard called this freedom terrible. Sartre said we were condemned to be free and went even further by saying that when we choose, we choose for humanity.

The Bright Side

Ironically, one of the most fascinating bright spots is in Camus’ work — you know, the one where he asked why we shouldn’t kill ourselves. Camus claimed that joy was to be found in accepting our condition, and that our enemy was hope. It was because we hope for something better that we suffer. Here is a summary and analysis. Happiness through hopelessness? Why not? When I suffer, it’s because I’m comparing my situation with something better to which I have some hope or expectation, no matter how remote. Without this hope, I can see my situation on its own terms and not in contrast to something better, from which it derives its suffering. Hope is often thought of as something good, but the thought that it may be a bad thing is tantalizing. Unfortunately, Camus spends relatively little time on this and when he discusses it, it seems grim, born out of defiance than any kind of genuine joy.

Ecclesiastes also had a bright spot. It encouraged people to throw themselves in life. However, like Camus, it comes off sounding hollow. After all, it led with a long list of reasons why life was futile so its endorsement sounds like an afterthought — another grim resignation in the absence of anything better.

Two other writers took a a more positive approach, although they did not cover the full range of Existentialist themes.

Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning argued that meaning was something we created, and was central to life. In fact, he argued that as long as people had meaning (a WHY) they could survive even the worst conditions. His view was informed by his experiences in a concentration camp.

Martin Buber wrote I and Thou, a work that rather than sounding pessimistic, carried a lyrical, contemplative, semi-mystical beauty. The book is about how we exist in relation.

A More Positive Approach

One way to approach Existentialism more positively is to argue that it isn’t the world that’s meaningless, but EXTERNAL “meaning”, the “meaning” imposed on us by others, the “meaning” we do not internalize, the “meaning” we do not find fulfilling. Rules are arbitrary, deriving “authority” (at best) from their connection to the rest of life. Yet when life itself is absurd, what kind of authority is that? This then allows us to choose INNER meaning, which is not in doubt. Our INNER meaning fulfills us.

Freedom can be scary, but it is also exhilarating, as it is full of possibilities. With this freedom, we go from being on predefined tracks to being in an open field in which we may wander at will.

The inevitability of death is depressing, but it is also empowering. It reminds us to drop petty concerns and live while we can, rather than waste our time living someone else’s life. Death will take away all that we accumulate, including possessions and status, so why pursue them? When we pursue INNER meaning, we at least have the reward of being fulfilled. Death may take us, but our life — while we have it — is lived to the fullest.

Even ethics can easily be derived. In fact, it’s The Golden Rule again. After all, if we all exist as conscious beings, then our responsibility and virtue towards one another lies in how we bring joy and avoid bringing pain to others.

The Existential Crisis — if we experience it — should be temporary, something we pass through on the way to something better. Once we fully embrace the reality of our situation, we either find joy in it as Camus claimed, or go further to build meaning on our own terms, without external meaning challenging us or making us doubt ourselves. The point is that Existentialism should leave us HAPPIER. Yes, I see Existentialism as a philosophy of joy, with any pain being a bump on the way there.

Conclusion

Existentialism is not for everyone. Some people are happy with their beliefs and find life more livable for having them. I imagine they find those beliefs inwardly meaningful. These people should avoid Existentialism or anything that would challenge their beliefs. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

However, others are not so lucky. Some find themselves in a stage of doubt from which they cannot emerge. Existentialism can help guide them through this transition. Others have beliefs that cause them pain. Existentialism can help undermine those beliefs. Yet, this is only half the story. Without the positive side of Existentialism — what does one build in its place?

The Positive Side of Existentialism is not only a neglected philosophy, it may be one of Western Philosophy’s great missed opportunities.

A Closing Note

While Existentialism deals with a broad range of themes, there isn’t full consensus. Some disagree with each other, some repudiate later views, others still reject the label of Existentialist. For instance, Camus didn’t like the label and Buber denied being an Existentialist. I believe Sartre distanced himself from at least one of his lectures/books. Regardless, the philosophy lives on as once stated, it takes on a life of its own. Still, in the interest of full disclosure, please know that some of these sources may be controversial.

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11 thoughts on “The Neglected Philosophies: The Positive Side of Existentialism

  1. I have struggled with putting into words exactly what you have stated here. Many people find a lot of what I say to be a little existential and therefore ‘depressing.’ They ask the same question, “So, what keeps you from killing yourself?” I have to explain to them that in understanding the world to be thus, and in accepting it, I am given a certain drive by it. For in a world without absolutes or concretes to wrap my head around, I can go around and wrap it around anything and discover different, interesting qualities each time. It is precisely because there seems to be no center that makes the allure of that void all the more enticing to me. I travel because of it, striving to find what I know can’t be found, but in the striving itself I find my peace and solace.

    I am sure I am butchering your point to a certain extent, but I found you post to very clearly propose an explanation I have found difficult to provide others. Thank you!

      1. Here’s yet another take at the “why don’t you kill yourself?” question. You turn it on its head, by realizing that you haven’t killed yourself yet indeed. If you haven’t, there must be something keeping you around. Life, somehow, is still worth living. Everything else is poetic pose.
        On a totally unrelated note, I never cease to be baffled by the sheer breadth of subjects you cover: from Mathematics to philosophy, including software engineering. I am really, really curious: what is your major? I am guessing most of this stuff you’ve learned on your own, but I’d really like to know which.

      2. I like your take on that question.

        My major is Computer Science and I minored in math. The stuff I write about however is stuff I learned on my own, either through experience or independent study.

        For instance, despite minoring in Math, I did not appreciate it much until I independently found connections with Computer Science (functional programming helped!) and later found it interesting in its own right.

        I got into philosophy via meditation and a friend. The meditation got me into Eastern Philosophy, yet I resisted Western Philosophy as I thought it was just about arguing semantics. That’s where the friend came in. He introduced me to some ancient Western Philosophies, and I saw they were about living a happy life. I then expanded my research, and the rest is history 🙂

  2. I’m still reading up on all this interesting stuff you’ve written about. But again I cannot resist the urge to comment. Actually, I had exactly the same idea about modern western philosophy: people arguing semantics. And I find my interest in philosophy comes from a desire to find ideas that are relevant to everyday life. Writing this, I realise I also want to find answers to universal questions.

    On existentialism: I find your approach very interesting. And I fully agree with your concept of giving up hope as being potentially liberating.

    Again, I see parallels with buddhism. Many people equate that with ‘life is suffering’ and wandering aimlessly amongst the smoke and mirrors of samsara. But when you look at the society in which it was thought up, I think it was also a radical and liberating view. Anyway, thanks for writing this.

  3. The problem I have with existentialism is that one is forced to create meaning ex nihilo, but doing so automatically undermines that meaning’s force—whatever that meaning could be—because it’s no longer true of anything in the world, or objectively. Of course, existentialists are aware of this. Their being aware doesn’t make it more appealing to me, though.

    But your point about repositioning our desires to fit the expectations of the world, to readdress our hopes, makes perfect sense within existentialism as the working worldview. It’s a more optimistic way of looking at things, even though on the surface extinguishing hope seems pessimistic. It has characteristics of Stoicism in that one is forced to realign desires to reality instead of banging one’s head against the wall. (Of course, Stoicism wouldn’t go so far as to say the world is meaningless, but just that we shouldn’t have expectations in things that are out of our control.) There is a lot of power in changing one’s desires to fit reality and it may be, at least in part, the key to happiness.

    That said, I’m still holding out hope that the world has meaning. 🙂

    1. True. What gives meaning its force? What is it about meaning that not only makes it so compelling, but that can resist our attempts to arbitrarily replace it with something of our choosing? I don’t think the latter is impossible, but it’s certainly not as easy as accepting the meaning handed down to us.

      BTW, I love your blog!

      1. I agree. The latter is not impossible, but feels very hollow to me. I’m suspicious of it even before finding it.

        Thanks so much and thanks for following! I’m looking forward to reading yours and very much enjoyed this post.

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