What is Existentialism? Existentialism is a system of philosophy developed in France during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. It has roots in the 19th century, particularly in works of German philosophers who wrote after Kant, like Hegel and Nietzsche, and also in the writings of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Existentialism proper, as a systematic view of human beings and the world they inhabit, is expressed in many books and articles written by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Why talk about existentialism today?
Existentialism was developed during a time of crisis. During World War II, France had been occupied by Nazi forces from June 1940 until September 1944 and, on the continent alone, about 580,000 French citizens died during the war. Questions about the meaning of freedom, the extent to which individuals are personally culpable for systematic moral failures, and whether or not life had meaning in the face of wholesale mechanized slaughter and the erosion of traditional values in post-industrial societies were forced into the spotlight by the collective reckoning that took place after the War. Not only had Europe itself been re-shaped, the end of the War also saw the old colonial powers losing their grip on the world and a wave of independence movements sprang up. French national interests in Indo-China, now the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and in the North African country of Algeria, were being challenged through both the ballot box and the bullet, to borrow a phrase from Malcolm X. When Sartre and Beauvoir began an aggressive public promotion of their new philosophy in the autumn of 1944, France and the world were yearning for an explanation of the new situation. Not everyone was pleased with the explanation on offer in books like Being and Nothingness, Beauvoir’s trailblazing work The Second Sex, and in the many novels and memoirs that couched complex philosophical themes in descriptive accounts of everyday life and the psychology of the people living those lives, for reasons that I’ll soon make clear.
Today, we also face systemic crisis. Capitalism continues to indict itself as it lurches from crash to crash. Faith in our political institutions is at an all-time low while the President himself wages a propaganda campaign against the media. We have been continuously at war for longer than most of my students have been alive. Income inequality is increasing as the wealth of the country is becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Wages are stagnant. Many young people are so burdened with debt that they put off buying homes, starting families, and other activities that are both economically vital and personally fulfilling. Looming over all these is the threat of catastrophic climate change, an apocalyptic future for which, it is constantly insinuated, we have only ourselves to blame. How not to despair in the face of these troubles? Indeed, if the planet is doomed, what’s the use? The fruits of our lives’ labors will be washed away sooner than any previous generation had expected.
As a result of such uncertainty and anxiety about the current situation and our future, there is an increased tendency to look for answers beyond our own mere existence and to yearn in desperation for a transcendental answer to our woes that would vanquish this worry once and for all. We long, at this late hour, for the Absolute. But the universe remains silent. Worse, it even appears to mock our efforts with the easy way it dashes even the best laid plans. A hiccup in the markets and your retirement is gone. A storm passes by and whole towns lay in ruin.
Existentialism provides a picture of our humanity in its anxious concern for the future, but also in its deep solidarity among the other people with whom we make our fate. It does so, first, by a theory of human consciousness focused on the fundamental ambiguity in our being. Upon this theory of consciousness is built a concept of human freedom that serves to ground an ethics of liberation. A philosophy of personal and individual existence gives way to a systematic understanding of our place in the world and within a society where we find our freedom or flee from it. For it is only in the collectivity of society that the individual can find themselves as an individual; only among others who are themselves free that my future can be opened to me.
Human beings find themselves thrown between being-for themselves and being-in themselves. As a being for-itself, we have hopes and dreams, goals and projects for the future. We are concerned with our own being and take measures to secure that being against whatever forces in the world might threaten it. But, we are also something in-itself, a body, which we did not choose and which can be acted upon by other bodies and forces in ways totally beyond our control. Indeed, the very mechanisms of our body can be a mystery to us and we need not know exactly how the heart circulates blood through its intricate chambers to feel it beating in our chest and know that it must continue its mysterious rhythm or we will die. This is our fundamental ambiguity, as Beauvoir describes it. We are subjects who have experiences of the world, but we are also objects. It is only through our objective existence that, as subjects, we can realize our projects and exert our will in the world.
In addition to this basic ambiguity, the for-itself is conscious. It is not merely conscious of its surroundings, but also conscious of itself as a consciousness and of its future. The consciousness of the for-itself is always conscious of something. Consciousness is about things, even sometimes about itself, and the fact that consciousness is directed toward something of which it is conscious is called its intentional structure. In order to be conscious of anything, the for-itself must distance itself from the thing. It must stand back from the world in order for the world to be positioned before the consciousness to which the world appears. This means that consciousness has a fundamentally negative quality. In order to posit the world as it appears, consciousness must first separate itself – I am not the world and the world is not me. Consciousness is therefore no thing, because it conditions the very appearance of things to which it relates. This act of negation establishes consciousness and so, consciousness exists as the positive and spontaneous up-springing of nothingness into the world. To be conscious is to be what one is not and not to be what one is. The object of which one is conscious structures the consciousness to which it appears, but is not reducible to the consciousness which is conscious of the object. Consciousness does not coincide with the things that give shape to consciousness. But this means that when consciousness takes itself as the object of experience it must first distance itself from itself in order to posit itself before itself as the object of consciousness. Thus, consciousness never coincides with itself. It sees itself only as an image produced by the imagination and is thus other to itself. Consciousness appears to itself as other to itself in the same way that other people appear to me. My image in the mirror is not me but rather an image that I recognize as a representation of myself. Sartre calls this the “decompression of being.” The ambiguity so expertly treated by Beauvoir is thus shown to be foundational: in order for the subjective for-itself to be self-conscious, to be reflexive consciousness, it must objectify itself as that thing of which it is conscious. Thus, to even consider its own subjectivity, the for-itself must reduce itself to an in-itself that can be posited as the object of which it is conscious.
The nothingness at the heart of conscious existence is the ground of human freedom. Pure, gratuitous and contingent spontaneity, the for-itself is nothing by necessity so that it can become whatever it will. It is nothing so that it can be something, but what it can be is an open possibility. It can always become other than it is, and in fact, because it thrusts itself into the future, will become something other than it is at a given moment. The question and the source of our anxiety is: what will I be? This is why by own being is a concern for me, why my own being is an issue: I must decide what to be. The existentialists express this by saying, “existence precedes essence.” I am thrown into existence and can decide only after the fact what I will become. Whatever I will become I can only become so in a world that I did not found for myself and among other people who are also in the process of becoming.
Beauvoir carries out extensive analyses of our development through childhood to adolescence. The child emerges into consciousness of a world that is laid out for them by the generations that came before. Their little lives are structured primarily by their parents and care takers from whom the child inherits their values. At first, the child takes these values to be ready-made, something like a natural object. The adult world is a serious world. The child has their freedom; they can play. But their play is largely inconsequential. Nothing too much is at stake. But soon, as the child reaches adolescence, faults begin to appear in the adult world. Their parents and caretakers are discovered to be human, fallible, and eventually begin to lose the veneer of godliness that once so transfixed the child. Soon, the young adult realizes that the serious world of adults is something the adults are inventing as they go, that what seemed so certain and unmovable to the child is revealed to be dubious and changing. Further, the adolescent is increasingly called upon to participate in the creation and maintenance of this world and they discover at once the true extent of their freedom and the full weight of responsibility that comes with it. No one but themselves can justify their choices. I choose and I alone am responsible for this choice. No one can confirm for me that I have done what I ought to do. Once I act, that decision takes on the objective quality of a fact and I must live now with the consequences of my choice that stands forever in the past. I can change, I can choose another course, but my choice is always made in the face of a past choice from which I have set off on this course toward the as yet undisclosed future. My freedom is therefore felt to be a burden and I would like to flee from having to choose. This attempt to flee my freedom, which ultimately cannot be fled, is called bad faith.
Bad faith encompasses the psychological strategies by which people attempt to deny the fact of their freedom. This is a paradox. I am free. It cannot be denied. And yet I often wish that I could relieve myself of this burden and the responsibility that comes with it. This is why the Absolute is so tempting, why we yearn for it so strongly. If there is some transcendent absolute that could guide our decisions, by which we could discern the rule of our lives, then we could be free of the awful demands of having to choose. If the choice is already made for me, determined ahead of time by some transcendent principle baked into the very structure of the universe, then I can simply obey. I can follow without having to lead my own life. For some people, religion fits this bill. God will tell me how to live, what choices to make. For some people, it is politics. I follow the party line. The Cause provides the blueprint of my life. But in each case it is the person who chooses their cause. Your parents can drive you to church every Sunday, but at some point you must decide whether or not to believe, whether or not you will continue to go yourself. It is you who join the party, or pursue that career, or apply to school. Nothing will justify these decisions but your own commitment to see it through.
Today there are many peddlers of the Absolute. Mostly, they get rich selling people bad faith. And people will pay to have someone else make their decision for them. Take, for instance, someone like Jordan Peterson, the psychology professor from the University of Toronto who was thrust into the spotlight when he very loudly and publicly contested the inclusion of gender identity as a protected class under Canadian law. In his interpretation, which was roundly rejected by every major legal authority in Canada, to protect gender identity constituted an assault on free speech, because he feared that he would be compelled to call transgender people and those who are gender non-conforming by their preferred pronouns. Now, no authority on Canadian law agreed with Peterson’s interpretation and no one is compelled by the federal law to call anyone anything. But why was Peterson so afraid and, in his fear, so opposed to the right of trans people to self identify? It is because he believes our identity to be determined by an a priori principle set down alternatively by evolutionary necessity and/or a transcendental archetype ineluctably rooted in our psyche. Thus, we cannot choose our identities, but are determined by an essence given in the fabric of the universe. While he preaches responsibility out of one side of his mouth, from the other side there issues the strategy by which our responsibility is evaded. If I am determined by evolutionary archetypes, I need not choose. I simply resign myself to the essential character determined by my nature. This is clear in his obsession with the order/chaos dichotomy. This is not an essential structure of reality of course; it is Peterson’s choice to interpret the world along this fundamental axis. He insists that chaos is feminine. When asked why chaos must be feminine, he simply says that this is the universal story humans tell. He is so close to the truth. He recognizes that these are stories we tell about the world, but because he cannot accept the burden of responsibility foisted upon him by having to choose what story to tell he elevates those stories to a transcendental principle whose meaning is absolute. I’ve seen him repeatedly assert that, “we cannot get out from under these stories.” I must confess I cannot recall ever having been under them. That the fundamental chaos dragon was a feminine archetype was news to me. Further, a cursory search through papers in comparative and cultural anthropology shows that these archetypes are not universal and the claim that they are necessitated by evolution is undermined. But Peterson selects his evidence to support the idea – that is the key. His interpretation of the evidence is guided ahead of time by his choice, his commitment to the principle. Yet, he disavows this choice. It is bad faith. He says had to choose, that this is the truth, which compels him to follow. He is not responsible. The advice he gives is what any parent should tell their child. Clean your room, sit up straight, and get your house in order. But to the disaffected young men who consume this message, and it is predominantly young men who flock to Peterson, it is not enough simply to choose these things. They need a serious world to cling to, a grand story in which they can be the heroes. If I must make my bed, it will be a noble battle against chaos. My posture is the sword by which I slay the dragon. They have resigned their freedom in order to have their choice made for them by an archetypical story that relieves them of the burden imposed by their freedom.
Peterson and his followers are what Beauvoir calls “serious men.” They cannot accept that they are solely responsible for asserting their own values and posit a value as transcendent, objective, and independent of human activity. For Peterson, this seems to be a somewhat obscure notion of “balance.” It is not “order,” which he conceives as masculine, because he frequently admits that too much order is bad. Obviously, because he also frequently asserts that we are currently experiencing too much feminine chaos, he does not value chaos alone. No, what he demands is a restoration of balance between the two, each to their proper place. Actually, I think a case could be made that he in fact values order over, since it is only proper order that can reign in chaos. But, taking Peterson at his word, I think “balance” is a fair name for his ultimate value. Nevertheless, “balance” achieves its ultimate value because Peterson values it. He assigns it its place in the hierarchy and it is not a discoverable value apart from human judgment. He masks this judgment by saying it is the only rational choice dictated by sciences such as evolutionary psychology and so on. The problem is that serious men like Peterson become willing to sacrifice everything to their value. Because they cannot ultimately be responsible for what the very nature of reality dictates, the freedom of anyone who lives contrary to the perceived value becomes an enemy. These deviants are then responsible for the imbalance – they bring chaos into the world. Order must be restored and if the freedom of these others must be sacrificed so that balance can be achieved, so be it. The battle for balance becomes a battle against these others, and the freedom of the serious man, which they have laid down in service to this ultimate value, becomes exhausted in their efforts to deny freedom to the other. The choices of the other who is Peterson’s enemy become illegitimate in his eyes. They are irrational; he has literally compared them to dead-eyed fish. Thus, the enemy is radically reduced to an object. They cannot have the full inner life and subjectivity the freedom affords the rational one who has discerned the world’s ultimately value. Objects become means to an end. They can be used to restore balance.
In reality, it is the serious man who has abandoned reason. In order to bolster his ultimate value he must not only seek out whatever evidence can support his principle, but must also deny any evidence to the contrary. This is why he must first of all annihilate the subjectivity of his enemies because the first evidence against his value is the contrary value freely assert by the projects of his enemy’s life. Abandoning himself to the passion of his cause, the serious man is not embarrassed to contradict himself and play loose with his words and claims. He revels in this bad faith and will regularly assert falsehoods. Ben Shapiro is another serious man who writes the most hackneyed and laughable histories meant to support his ideological ends. Steven Pinker is another. Shapiro offers a paradigmatic example of this tendency when he rails against “made up words.” Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Shapiro also becomes apoplectic when it comes to the rights of LGBTQ people, recently remarking that anyone who attempts to educate his child about LGBTQ issues will be meet with a gun. He rejects the use of “they/them” as a singular pronoun, claiming it has never been used as such in all of human history, though the evidence that the use English of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun has occurred for at least 400 years immediately discounts his claim. But it doesn’t matter. The claim is made in service to a transcendental principle. Facts don’t care about your feelings, indeed. At least, not the facts as Shapiro chooses to interpret them. His feelings, on the other hand, matter a great deal. Again, the foolishness of these claims is reinforced when Shapiro calls people who advocate for the gender-neutral “they” “wokescolds,” which is, of course, a made-up word. Nevertheless, it is legitimate in Shapiro’s eyes because it has been crafted to support the principle he has chosen.
Ironically, these public figures, who are openly antagonistic to Marxism, commit the very same error that both Beauvoir and Sartre draw attention to in Marx’s concept of dialectical materialism: namely, that history replaces God as the arbiter of value and so the individual must be subsumed to the demands of the movement of history and the shifting conditions that determine their subjectivity. For Peterson, it is the historical movement of evolution, which has ingrained certain archetypes that cannot be escaped. For Shapiro, it is his appeal to the historical usage of words that serves as evidence of their immutable nature. Shapiro differs only in being a more traditional theist, because he practices an orthodox form of Judaism, and so history will vindicate his view because it issues from God, the ultimate transcendent Being.
Existentialism is important for our times because it so effectively helps us diagnose both the central problems we face and its dangers, like, for instance, these serious men. The serious are prone to violence. They are fundamentally fearful. They are afraid of change, for one, and they project this fear onto the weakest and most marginalized in our communities. In the instances I have chosen here, those victims become trans people and other LGBTQ folks, especially young and lower class members of those groups. But it happens elsewhere in analogous ways. Immigrants are always targeted because they can be interpreted as an outside force, an infection or invasion that is bringing the chaos with them. The foreign element in society is said to threaten the true values that make our country great and so on. This is an old story and is leveraged today in America against people from Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere just as it has been leveraged against the Jews for centuries. The same sort of blatant contradictions and foolishness accompanies these fears, which are always vague and ill defined. The weakest and most powerless groups are charged with somehow infiltrating society and corrupting it at the highest levels. They are outsiders, poor, hungry, without shelter, and yet they wield the power to pose an existential threat to the country and its way of life. The mental gymnastics required to pull off these claims is extraordinary in that the least push will over throw them. But for those who are anti-immigrant, transphobic, anti-Semitic, it makes no difference. It is the idea of their transcendent value that must be protected. That their fears are based on an ill defined and nebulous enemy works to their advantage because a vacuous concept can be filled with any content should the need arise.
Oppression is the outcome. Reduced to a mere form, those subject to the plans of serious people are mere objects and their freedom is denied from the outside. They can do nothing in protest. Their protests are just further evidence of their deviancy. They complain, but these complaints are illegitimate because they are against the supposed natural order and one cannot take issue with nature. They are told they should do something about it, to actualize their own values and plans instead of bothering everyone else, but their freedom has already been denied and so they are asked to do what is impossible. To pull oneself up by the bootstraps describes a literally impossible task. This is the double-bind face by the oppressed. If the oppressor can recruit some from among the class of the oppressed to advocate on behalf of the powerful, then all the better. Racists always have some Black friend who they ventriloquize to show they are righteous and the house slave often preferred their own comfort to the freedom of their brothers and sisters in the fields. Beauvoir is clear that it is only other people who can oppress me. I am not oppressed by rocks and trees, which may present me with an obstacle but remain simply a thing in-itself that is not expending its own freedom in the denial of mine. It is only another person who can will themselves against me and so expends their freedom in the denial of mine. I am but an object in their plans and they place me in the service of a transcendental principle whose logical end is my conformity or annihilation. Thus, to overcome their oppression, the oppressed must assert themselves against the freedom of their oppressors and overthrow them. This becomes a question of political strategy. Of course, it would be preferable to win the hearts of those who would do me harm. A conversion wherein I am seen in my subjectivity and my future is opened to me by the love of the other would be ideal. But the world is not ideal. In case no such conversion is possible there comes a point when I must do the only thing left to me – assert my freedom against the body of my oppressor. The question then becomes one of justifying when violence is necessary. It is the last form of self-defense.
Existentialism, then, is a philosophy for our times. It need not remain rooted in the form given to it by Beauvoir and Sartre. But they provide us with a basis from which we can strike out on our own. Today, there are academics who, under the name of existentialism, do not take care of the key texts and arguments of existentialism as a lived, historical philosophy. For instance, so-called neuro-existentialism, championed by Gregg Caruso and Owen Flanagan, attempt to situate what they understand to be the concerns of existentialism in the context of neuroscience and a reductionist theory of mind that reduces human subjective consciousness to brain function. This means, according to Caruso and Flanagan, that we are not free. That is not existentialism. This is yet another appeal to a transcendental principle, the principle of materialism and the physical sciences, in order to evade the responsibility placed on us by our free actions in the world. By choosing scientism over the evidence of their own experience, these philosophers give us only excuses for ourselves and disburden us of our concern for the future. Neuro-existentialism is not an existentialism. While Caruso’s work on prison reform is admirable, and I agree with him on many of these ethical and political issues, I cannot endorse his brand of neuro-philosophy nor grant him the moniker of existentialism.
Existentialism for our times must recall people back to their responsibility. Back the freedom that grounds it and by which they enact their hope and projects for the future. Freedom exists as an absolute value, not because it is a transcendental principle, but because it is at the heart of everything we humans value in our immanent and intimate domains. Every other value we assert depends on our freedom so that it may be asserted. Each individual need not recognize their freedom as an absolute value but whatever value they hold depends upon their freedom, which enables them to value anything at all. We cannot escape this responsibility, just as we cannot escape the others with whom we share the world. We hope they will open our future to us with good will, as we should work to support the freedom of others and open their own futures to them. We depend on each other, alone as we are in this world together. Our future is uncertain. Let us face it together.