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TalkExistentialism

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1edwardhenry
Aug 10, 2006, 3:28pm

While I realize the definition of existentialism is rather nebulous (and that arguing about its meaning can be both amusing and distressing), I think it is well-enough embedded in our consciousness to discuss.

My own reading in existentialism has focused on Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Camus, although others have sparked my interest. Of these, Camus is my favorite (indeed, one of my favorite authors).

Hopefully, this group will gather like-minded readers, and we'll have something to discuss.

Anyone?

2SqueakyChu
Aug 10, 2006, 10:52pm

Ooooh! Existentialism!!!

I just recently read The Stranger by Albert Camus and found it very intriguing.

I like to read those kinds of books, but can't, for the life of me, define exactly what existentialism is!

A book you might like is
The Woman in the Dunes buy Japanese author Kobo Abe. Another one that just blew me away is The Blind Owl by the late Persian novelist Sadegh Hedayat. I can't explain what the latter is about (you have to read it yourself), but the former is about a scientist who is trapped in the desert, to put it mildly. Both are VERY strange!!! You'll love them. Enjoy!

3jeltzz
Aug 11, 2006, 6:48pm

I have read quite a lot of Camus and some Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard. I think existentialism has some fascinating insights into the human condition, and I appreciate that a significant amount of its output has been in literary works

4soam
Aug 18, 2006, 11:53pm

Two that I read some time ago that I enjoyed were Arthur Schopenhauer and Edmund Husserl. They both strongly influenced existentialism, if not considered strict existentialism.

One of the big names, Heidegger, I've never enjoyed. Probably one of the most difficult and frustrating names I've ever tried to read. I once had a professor who attended a Heidegger conference that no one there really knew what they were talking about, it's just that they have memorized Heidegger's unique vocabulary and can throw it around in conversation.

For me as well, Camus is a favorite. I also really enjoy Sartre's literary works like Nausea and The Wall.

5sandfly
Aug 30, 2006, 7:09pm

I finished reading The Woman in the Dunes yesterday. I'm still pondering the meaning of the book but I found it very interesting and will have to reread some of the sections.

6SqueakyChu
Aug 30, 2006, 7:38pm

If you have an interpretation for the meaning of The Woman in the Dunes, please share it!

This was pretty simple in
relation to the second book by Kobo Abe that I read. Try reading The Box Man and tell me what you think *that* book means. It's pretty wild!

7sandfly
Aug 31, 2006, 5:20pm

There were several passages that stood out to me. When Niki was watching the moth being eaten by the spider that waited by the lamplight he was thinking that both had evolved since man had started having lights at night. What that is exactly supposed to be saying I'm not sure. I felt it was something about the interactions of men within the glow of their technology. I might be making too much of it being post war years and the devastation of mainland Japan but it seemed that with the invention of lamplight the spider had evolved a more efficient way of killing a moth than spinning a web and waiting.

I thought the sand was the oppresiveness of life. The obstacle that cannot be overcome along the lines of Sisyphus. His life in the sandpit really didn't seem much worse than his life back in the city. The physical conditions of the sand were worse but other than that the seemed to be similar. He was a teacher who faced new students every year. The students and the sand would have obvious similarities in that they are constantly changing yet he stays in place. His hope of escaping his teaching plight was to find a new species of insect that would bear his name.

Considering it was also written shortly after WWII, and made mention of radition posioning, I felt the sand might be the encroachment of the western powers on Japan or at least that maintaining a traditional Japan in the face modern world was impossible.

I'm sure the book was loaded with gender issues but I don't know enough about Japanese society to figure out what they mean.

I need to look thru the book again to find some of the other passages. I'll write about those later.

8bigal123
Aug 31, 2006, 5:44pm

Like others I don't necessarily know what existentialism is but from what I understand it seems to be a walking contradiction. Starting off with Nietzche's re-evaluation of all values in Beyond Good and Evil.

Although, I love Nietzche simply for the fact that he exposes a bitter truth his philosophy is self-defeating. At the beginning of the book he criticizes enlightenment thinkers, among them Kant, for prioritizing truth above non-truth, but his book is explicitly about finding truth, specifically the truth of human nature. In fact it was a response to Darwinism, to a certain extent.

Then we get to Satrean existentialism, which says that all values are subjective. What!!! If all values are subjective, why should we listen to anything he says, although some of what he says is pretty legitimate. But this begs the question, if all values are subjective, then how do we adjudicate moral actions? He makes it impossible for government to exist and if it does it can't do anything.

Then, we get to Camus, who by the way is not an existentialist but an absurdist, who says that there is no purpose in life but we can't kill ourselves. I'm sorry maybe it's just me but I don't understand. He then says that we shouldn't kill ourselves because a disconnect in our conciousness from the world makes it impossible to explore the absurd. He then gives a purpose to life, which is freedom. He says that we should accept life the way it is without resignation, which will make us free by allowing us to see that there is no higher meaning and no judicial afterlife.

Somebody please help me to understand the conundrum that existentialism creates!

9SqueakyChu
Aug 31, 2006, 8:33pm

Responding to message 7:

I love your interpretations, Sandfly. I didn't try to interpret the book after I read it. I just let the strangeness of it surround me. I really like books that tend toward the surreal.

The image I get in my mind when thinking of that book is the scene in which the man tries to climb the cliff and never gets anywhere because the sand keeps coming down. I was horrified that he got himself into that situation in the first place. That image makes me think of situations in which people find themselves helpless to get out of in day-to-day life. Many times, it's their own fault they are in such situations. Perhaps, at times, things that seem to be our salvation in reality can turn out to be our downfall.

10lizvelrene
Sep 1, 2006, 10:11am

bigal123: This is where reading some of the literary works of these authors comes in. In the case of Camus, reading The Plague may help you better understand what he's getting at. Like in The Myth of Sisyphus which it sounds like you've read, you have a man performing a seemingly meaningless task at which he can't possibly succeed. But in this case it's a doctor treating victims of an unstoppable plague that is decimating a city. He can't stop the plague or save the lives of its victims, and he risks his own life in doing this. In that way his actions are absurd. But freely choosing to minister to these unfortunates, when there will be no reward for it on "heaven" or earth, is a heroic act. It has no greater purpose, because on balance it makes no difference whether he intervenes or not. But he has that freedom to choose kindness and mercy, and in that freedom is beauty. It is accepting control of your own life independent of any greater design.

(feel free to correct me in my interpretation)

11SqueakyChu
Sep 1, 2006, 10:56am

This is the definition of existentialism by dictionary.com, but I like your explanation better, lizvelrene.

http://dictionary.reference.com/search?r=2&q=existentialism

12bigal123
Sep 1, 2006, 1:15pm

I understand where you're coming from lizvelrene. However, any argument formulated as a justification for why an individual should undertake an action, presupposes that there is a purpose behind that action. Everytime Camus says that this is why we should do something he creates a purpose. Even in your interpretation one might say that the purpose is to discover the beauty in life or the ability to be free to decide to be merciful. This is the point where an infinite conundrum is created.

If Camus says that there is no purpose in living then he can give no justification for living, because by doing so he inherently gives life a purpose. Purpose and justification are inextricably linked. A purpose is created by saying that my purpose is to give life a purpose for me.

Moreover, just as you say that in the freedom to decide to be merciful is beauty, couldn't the converse be said? In the freedom of inaction beauty is present. If this is so there could be beauty in letting people die, as in the case of The Plague.

The contradiction still persists. By saying, "It is accepting control of your own life independent of any greater design." you take away my freedom to refuse your logic.

As such I should be able to act or not act. Existentialism or in this case absurdism rejects the idea of objective morality but reinstitutes the prescriptive morality for the sake of making it's own argument.

13soam
Sep 1, 2006, 4:31pm

Just to add to what bigal123 said, I think what is missing there is that the most important question for Camus was whether or not to commit suicide. And by consciously choosing not to commit suicide every day, we make an affirmation that each day that life is worth living. The fact that we make such a choice in the face of such an absurd reality though is perhaps a source for real existential angst.

14tomcatMurr
Oct 27, 2007, 4:06am

Shakespeare was of course the first existentialist. Read Hamlet and King Lear...

15SJaneDoe
Oct 27, 2007, 8:26am

Yes, and he also invented the lightbulb and discovered penicillin.

16tomcatMurr
Oct 28, 2007, 7:01am

well, there's no need to be a bitch now.

If we're talking about existentialism in literary discourse as well as in philosophical discourse -and I presume from reading through the thread that people are (The Plague, Dostoevsky, Nausea)- then I think it's a perfectly valid argument to make that Shakespeare explores existentialist themes in H and KL just as much as Dostoevsky does in The Demons, or the Idiot, for example.

But I'm obviuosly mad, so I'll just stay out and let you guys carry on. Sorry if I offended anyone.
:)

17tomcatMurr
Oct 28, 2007, 7:08am

This message has been deleted by its author.

18tomcatMurr
Oct 28, 2007, 7:09am

mmmm
perhaps I'm in the wrong thread.....

(I'll just tiptoe off then...)

19bigal123
Nov 12, 2007, 7:43pm

I'm sorry, but I just can't resist this: Albert Camus is not an existentialist, he broke off from the philosophical tradition known as existentialism and developed his own philosophy, which is absurdism. I would recommend that you read the Myth of Sisyphus, for anyone who wants to learn more about the distinction between existentialism and absurdism.

20Benjaminista
Nov 17, 2007, 1:14pm

Camus certainly is an existentialist. Breaking from Sartre does not mean breaking from an existentialist tradition of thought. For me, existentialism is about coming to grips with a world without inherent meaning. It is the struggle Nietzsche defined by asking what happens after the death of God, what values and ambitions are possible. The Plague particularly encapsulates this struggle, and introduces the notion of the secular saint. As much as I love Nietzsche, I recognize some of the dangers inherent in his thought and appreciate Camus for this more humanist approach.

21bigal123
Nov 21, 2007, 6:27pm

In response to why Albert Camus is an absurdist rather than an existentialist philosopher I would generally tell people to read his magnum opus on this particular subject: The Myth of Sysuphus; however, for the sake of discussion I will answer objections to Camus not being an absurdist in a more direct fashion. First off, there is more than one type of existentialism, so why anyone would automatically think that Camus was an existentialist per se is perplexing in-of-itself. Second, the distinguishing feature between existentialism and absurdism is a direct result of the fact that absurdism takes existentialism to its logical extreme. In the Myth of Sysphus, Camus breaks off from the philosophical tradition of existentialism precisely because he not only posits the argument that life as such has no meaning, but that our existence, i.e. the fact that we live anyway, is absurd. In addition, Camus posits that the absurd is a consequence of man's attempt to find meaning in the universe where none exists. (Initially, the concept of the absurd was explored in Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.) He then explores three options suicide, a leap of faith, or acceptance (although Camus clearly does not mean acceptance in any passive sense of the word). From this Camus then derives three components of absurdism: my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. He ultimately concludes that the only defensible option is acceptance of our condition because we must (1) revolt against our meaningless condition, which is a fundamental prerequisite for maintaining our constant connection with the absurd (because without it we can never be free); (2) become free, insofar as not being bound by an ultimate meaning and purpose in life or judgment in the after life dissolves any obligation to follow a particular path (hence the subjectivity of moral valuations); (3) develop a passion for life, which will enable us to construct the meaning of our lives via recognizing the beauty in life. Third, which should be the clencher, the name of the chapters in Myth of Sisyphus are: An Absurd Reasoning, The Absurd Man, Absurd Creation, and Myth of Sisyphus, respectively. If the words absurd in the chapter titles don't convince you that Camus is an absurdist I don't know what will. For a further exploration of this topic, I would recommend that you read Kierkegaard's explanation of the absurd in Fear and Trembling and you should probably read Myth of Sisyphus over again, as well.

22EncompassedRunner
Nov 26, 2007, 2:57am

The existentialist beauty of Camus' short story The Myth of Sisyphus is in the very end--the very, very end. Pure existentialism there.

23bigal123
Nov 26, 2007, 5:19pm

Right. The Myth of Sisyphus is existentialist, if you ignore all of the theoretical work about absurdism, which preceded it.

24BGP
Nov 26, 2007, 9:05pm

...and most people do.

25Meh_ssdd First Message
Dec 11, 2007, 5:30pm

I think that regardless of how Camus considered his works, they were directly descended from existentialist thought, and getting into a protracted debate about the nuances of difference between absurdist and existentialist thought is really just splitting hairs. I don't find the positions antagonistic to each other, and I think that the discussion of existentialism is incomplete without including Camus.

26Darrol
Dec 11, 2007, 6:59pm

I have been meaning to ask: What is the essence of Existentialism?

I just bought Being and Nothingness.

27bigal123
Dec 11, 2007, 10:02pm

>Meh_ssdd

First, I think that a "protracted debate" about the nuances between existentialism and absurdism is necessary, insofar as there are substantive differences between the two. Moreover, the debate was started because people confused Albert Camus' work with existentialism; however, his work is distinctly different. With that being said this debate helps to clarify a common misconception and therefore helps illuminate and raise the level of the debate through that clarification. If anything this debate helps, not hinders our understanding of existentialist and absurdist thought. Thus, this is not just "splitting hairs".

>Darrol

It depends on what you mean by essence. Do you mean essence as in what is essentially existentialism, or essence in the Aristotelian sense of the word?

28Meh_ssdd
Dec 12, 2007, 12:01am

Okay, I can agree with you about some of that. But I think it's a little ridiculous to say that Camus isn't a writer of existentialism; even if he is more properly an absurdist, absurdism is a philosophy of existentialist decent. You described it yourself as existentialism taken to an extreme, and your arguments about the "breaks" with existentialism all seem to be ideas that fit within the framework of existential philosophy.

I'm going to take a moment here to admit that the only Camus I've read is The Stranger and I'm not really familiar with The Myth of Sisyphus, so I would benefit from a more detailed explanation. The nebulous ideas around existentialism might also make this discussion a little muddied. But I welcome the chance to learn more about what people consider to fall under the philosophy, since most of my knowledge comes from independent reading.

29Darrol
Edited: Dec 12, 2007, 7:18am

bigal123: There is an old cartoon where one of the characters keeps saying to another: "That was a joke, son."

Where the doctrine is that existence precedes essence--so I guess I meant the Aristotelian sense of the word but punning with wondering what is "essentially existentialism" (though even that phrase makes me giggle a little).

30bigal123
Dec 17, 2007, 5:47pm

>Darrol

Given the fact that you use the word essence in two ways, which are connected, I'll answer your question, to the best of my ability, in one shot. In essence, existentialism is an inversion of the Aristotelian logic, which posits that essence precedes existence. Indeed, Sartre argued that we are born being nothing, and only secondarily do we acquire essence, which we either develop for ourselves or which is conferred upon us by the other. In this sense, then, existentialism argues that because we are nothing, we have the possibility to be anything. Thus, it is our responsibility to ultimately construct the meaning and purpose of our lives, which is not to be confused with the overall purpose or meaning of life in general (some existentialis, however, argue about whether or not any such meaning or purpose exists).

Aristotle, however, argued that only by figuring out what our telos was could we then legitimate and actualize our existence and identities as human beings. In this way, Aristotle presupposes what existentialism denies: a fundamental purpose for human beings. For Aristotle, the question is always: how ought I, as a human being, act in a manner that is consistent with my purpose as a human being.

So, according to existentialism, your essence is a manifestation of your will; in other words, your essence is a product of your committment to act by taking responsibility for your life. On the other hand, Aristotelianism argues that your essence is the product of you understanding your human telos.

31Naren559
Edited: Jan 5, 2009, 10:48am

Viktor Frankl's Mans Search for meaning (translated from the original German, From the Death Camp to Existentialism is a quite good introduction to existentialism. He ultimately posits: "Life is a series of decisions; the first decesion one makes is to stay alive." I would add to this that, those who continue a habit (smoking?), which is known to possibly causes lung cancer leading to death, have decided in a long term suicide.

Sartre, no doubt, looked on the title "Being and Nothingness" as supplementary to Heidegger's "Being and Time" (Although Heidegger did not agree with Sartre interpreptation of "being".) As I understand Being and Nothingness, Sartre starts off denying that, at birth, "self" consciousness is "nothing", thus self "consciousness" evolves by intereacting and mirroring (and adapting) others' apparent reaction to to whatever persona we are projecting at the time of interaction.

As human consciousness, we are always aware that we are not whatever we are aware of - we cannot, in this sense, be defined as our 'intentional objects' of consciousness, including our facticity of personal history, character, bodies, or objective responsibility. Thus, as Sartre often repeated, 'human reality is what it is not, and it is not what it is': it can only define itself negatively, as 'what it is not'; but this negation is simultaneously the only positive definition it can make of 'what it is'

32WilfGehlen
Edited: Jan 2, 2009, 6:50pm

An interesting series of posts.

I am only beginning the journey through philosophy, but at this point I see the "essence of existentialism" aptly expressed in the epigraph to this group: "But the point is to live." To which one can add: "The rest is silence." No other decoration is required. The panoply of exposition serves not to interpret so much as to reveal this essence to a multitude with disparate receptor channels. As Camus realized, literature is much more expressive than essay in this endeavor.

Members of this group, no doubt, are busy going about the process of living but, no doubt, have much more that they can express on this topic.

33Mr_Wormwood
Feb 23, 2009, 5:17am

I think its futile and rather too ironic to be searching for an 'essence' to existensialism, there never has been one and there never will be. THe best one can do is find a suitably broad generalization for a philosophical endeavour that has so many different facets, and the one i would chose would be: existensilalism is concerned with existence... short and sweet and broad enough to encompass many different approaches.

34Naren559
Feb 23, 2009, 2:31pm

For those, who may wish to "incorporate" existentialism as a 'sign post" in their life worlds, I would recommend Irvin D. Yalom's publications--particularly Existential Psychotherapy.

Naren

35Mr_Wormwood
Edited: Feb 24, 2009, 4:32am

An interesting endeavour in existensialism is to be found in the work of the historian of philosophy and philosopher, Pierre Hadot. Hadot brings into fruitful juxtaposition the tradition of ancient philosophy, particularly Epicureanism and Stoicism, and existensialism. The existensialism side comes largely from the intellectual miliue in which he matured. A French academic during the 50s he could not escape the resounding impact of the arrivial of existensialism in the intellectual world at that time. And in his work as a historian of antiquity he found a responding echo. Common to these phiilosophies was a coherent philosophical praxis concerned fundamentally with existence. And so, with Hadot as our guide, we could say that Socrates was the first existensialist

36Naren559
Feb 24, 2009, 1:47pm

apropos, epicurianism: From his book Staring at the Sun*, Yalom writes: Indeed, in my work as a therapist, I take as my intellectual ancestors not so much the great psychiatrists and psychologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--Pines, Freud, Jung, Pavlov, Rorschach, and Skinner--but classical Greek philosophers, part5icularly Epicurus. The more I learn about this extraordinary Athenian thinker, the more strongly I recognize Epicurus as the proto-exis6tential psychotherapist, and I will make use of his ideas throughout this work."

38Naren559
Sep 21, 2009, 7:24am

"Brush up your Shakespeare; start quoting him now. Brush up your Shakespeare, and the women you will wow!"

Also, one might explore the possibilities posed by Julian Jaynes, Jill Bolte Taylor and Bruce Lipton.

39Naren559
Feb 9, 2012, 6:17pm

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen just recently published American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and his Ideas