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Nausea as the Touchstone for Gauging Existential Literature

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The concept of “existential literature” is a tricky one. Since Existentialism is a philosophy that means to describe existence, everything that has ever been done or written should rightfully fall within its bounds, since everything exists. Even works meant to illuminate other philosophies could be interpreted by existentialists as the authors’ attempts to cope with their existential condition, and might reasonably be categorized as existential. But it is useless to have a category with no distinguishing characteristics to set its members off from everything else: if everything is existential, then there would be no use having the word, because the word “everything” would cover their shared idea well enough.

Another possible way to recognize existential literature would be to limit the phrase to works produced by the members of the French intellectual movement—primarily, Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus— who named this philosophy during the 1940s, and the writers who followed their example. Since these are the writers who willingly associated their works with Existentialism, they would seem to be the ones who are producing the existential literature. Unfortunately, participation in the existential movement alone does little to help define existential literature. The works of Kafka, Dostoevsky, and early Hemingway are all clearly existential in nature, even though their authors never had the philosophy defined for them. What about Hamlet’s dilemma, or Abraham’s choice to sacrifice Isaac in the book of Genesis? These are clearly existential moments, if not actual examples of existential literature. Closely associating existential literature with the French existential movement also raises the problem of the people who chose to call themselves and their work by that name when it was in vogue. At the peak of Existentialism’s popularity in the 1950s, there were hundreds of fans who used the existential concept of angst to describe their unhappiness, or mistook medium-sized disappointments for “dread.” Their works are not considered truly existential, whether the writers thought they were or not.

Labels are anathema within a philosophy that can be characterized by the catchphrase “existence precedes essence.” It would be dishonest to the core beliefs of Existentialism to make any general claims about the essence of existential literature. It is the nature of the philosophy that each piece of literature, especially the literature associated with it, should be experienced before it is defined. More than other literary movements, such as Romanticism or even Modernism, existential literature cannot be identified by checking it against a preexisting list of aspects to see if it fits some sort of profile.

In the absence of any set criteria, there is still a possibility of calling a body of literature “existential” by recognizing what specific works resemble. This open-ended option for identifying things is like the one used by the Supreme Court justice who could not define pornography but felt sure that he would know it when he saw it. Maybe there are not and cannot be rules that identify the varieties of existential literature, but there should at least be some useful standard by which any one work, experienced in and itself, could have the term applied to it in some meaningful way.

The most likely candidate for a work of existential literature that can be used to test other literature against would be Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea. It is not the most accomplished or successful novel of the existential movement, nor even the most fully realized literary work that Sartre himself produced, but this novel has particular characteristics, both in its technique and in its historical situation, that identify it with Existentialism in a way that other works lack.

Nausea was Sartre’s...

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first published novel. This means that it was the work that launched the literary career of the man who launched the philosophical movement. At the time, Sartre had published some philosophy, but withNausea he put his philosophy into motion on the page, giving his ideas a reality that talking about them could not achieve. The fact that it was published before he attained a widespread reputation as a literary and philosophical genius almost certainly gave him a freedom that he would have to fight for in later years, when he was aware of the weight a whole world of followers would put on his every word. Later, Sartre was to view the ideas in Nausea as “dated,” noting that he thought so even at the time of its publication. His philosophy moved on, becoming more involved with questions of political commitment than those of simply existing, such as those shown in his next-most-famous literary achievements, the plays No Exit and Dirty Hands. Readers can argue which of Sartre’s novels or plays was the “best,” and even which stage of his evolution was most “authentic,” but his first novel, Nausea, has a purity that it holds in common with almost all other existential literature that came before it or after.

Stylistically, Nausea has the elements that most people have in mind, if only subconsciously, when they speak about existential literature. The story steers clear of a linear plot. Instead, its narrator, Antoine Roquentin, organizes it like a series of journal entries. It is a narrative technique that is common to much existential writing, from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to John Hawkes. Just as the point of Sartre’s novel, and the cause of Roquentin’s Nausea, is the contrast between existence and meaning, so too this character’s existence is at odds with the faith that readers can traditionally invest in the hidden stream of meaning that holds a plot together. Lacking the desire to sustain a traditional narrative, existential literature works best in short stories, plays (which always take place in the hereand- now), and fragmented novels like Nausea, where scene changes appear as random as the situations in life.

Nausea, in fact, dispenses with its faux-diary style without any hesitation. For example, a section called “Sunday” starts on page 40 and continues on to page 57, which would be an extraordinary amount of writing for a diarist, even one as obsessed with his own ideas as Roquentin, to record in a single day. That particular entry is written in the present tense, and it includes four pages of dialog. Clearly, Sartre was not interested in maintaining the illusion that this was anything like a diary: illusion and Existentialism are incompatible. Most works recognized as existential are just as jarring and fragmented, with little attempt to establish a fictional “reality.”

Roquentin’s story follows his search for meaning, which leads him through familiar channels of live and community, God and Humanism, before leaving his life as empty as it was at the novel’s start. The conflict between reality and meaning has Roquentin nauseous at the beginning, and in the end he is just a little short of convincing himself that writing a book about his experiences might help him accept his situation. It is no small achievement for an author to have his protagonist change so slightly over the course of a novel: Sartre achieves this by filling Roquentin’s days with minutely observed details. He creates a reality for the reader, one that is just a little too real for Roquentin to bear. Such an intricate rendering of detail is just good fiction writing, existential or otherwise.

One final element that makes this novel exemplary existential fiction is its relationship to the author’s life. Nausea is generally recognized as a thinly-veiled autobiography. It would be almost impossible to conceive of existential literature that does not have the authenticity of its author’s own doubts, fears, and misery as a kind of subtext. Not all philosophies require that their fictional versions be bound to the lives of their authors, but not all philosophies are so intricately tied to the author’s sense of authenticity, to the importance of her or his own life. Regardless of whether it was written after Sartre or before, existential literature leaves readers with a strong sense of the teller of the tale. This is why, despite its existential elements, Hamlet would not qualify as existential literature: Shakespeare is always indistinguishable in his works. On the other hand, Franz Kafka, who is recognized as a leading existential writer, can tell a richly imagined tale, but his presence is still felt. For instance, Kafka never starved in a circus cage for spectators to watch, as the protagonist does in his story The Hunger Artist. Still, no one can doubt that the suffering for art that is the story’s central metaphor was indeed Kafka’s own suffering.

In his introduction to Nausea in the current paperback edition, Hayden Carruth examines the ways in which this novel was certainly not the first or finest work of existential literature, and its protagonist was in no way the first “existentialist man.” What makes the book so extraordinary, according to Carruth, is that Sartre’s Roquentin is “a man living at an extraordinary metaphysical pitch, at least in the pages of the journal he has left us.” This, in the end, might be the thing that makes this the most existential work of all. Existentialism is not a philosophy given to sustained fiction, and in this one small book Sartre takes it about as far as it can go. Readers who know Existentialism when they see it are advised to stay away from definitions as much as possible. But, when there is any doubt, they can refer back to this novel, where they will see this particular worldview take form in every word.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on Existentialism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.


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The Sources of a Name
None of the great existentialist tomes contains the word ‘existentialism’. Reports on its origin differ, but it seems to have been coined towards the end of World War II by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel as a label for the currently emerging ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre and his close friend Simone de Beauvoir. According to the latter, neither of them initially appreciated this baptism.

During a discussion organized during the summer [of 1945], Sartre had refused to allow Gabriel Marcel to apply this [word] to him: ‘. . . I don’t even know what existentialism is’. I shared his irritation . . . But our protests were in vain. In the end, we took the epithet . . . and used it for our own purposes.

Sartre, in fact, ‘took’ it rather quickly, for in the autumn of that year he delivered the lecture which became the most widely read of existentialist writings, Existentialism and Humanism. The label was soon to be stuck on many other writers. To begin with, it was attached to the two German philosophers of Existenz, Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, whose influence upon Sartre had been considerable. Heidegger bridled at this, quickly disowning the title in a piece published in 1947. Jaspers, while unwilling to be identified too closely with Sartre, was sufficiently enamoured of the term to claim that a book of his own, written back in 1919, was ‘the earliest writing in the later so-called existentialism’. Then the label was fixed, unsurprisingly, on a number of Sartre’s French contemporaries and friends, notably Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, eventually returning like a boomerang upon the neologizing Marcel. None of these readily welcomed the title, either—not so much, as is sometimes suggested, because they were against systems and ‘-isms’ as because no one other than Sartre, in his lecture, had tried to define the word, and this was not a definition under which they could immediately see their own ideas falling. One could hardly expect the Catholic Marcel, for example, to embrace a term which, as defined by Sartre, made the notion of a religious existentialist a virtual self-contradiction.

The next stage was to rake through the remoter philosophical past in search of thinkers deserving of the label, the prime candidates being he two enfants terribles of the nineteenth century, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, both of whom were known to have influenced Heidegger, Jaspers and Sartre. This intellectual archaeology was soon to know no bounds, with Pascal, Montaigne, even St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine, newly excavated as heralds of existentialism. And this labelling game was not confined to the field of philosophy. Novelists reckoned to have concerned themselves with such typically Sartrean themes as anxiety and conflict with others were soon included— Franz Kafka, for example. Nor, as Simone de Beauvoir relates, did the label attach only to people and their thoughts.

The existentialist label had been attached to all our books . . . and to those of our friends . . . and also to a certain style of painting and a certain sort of music. Anne-Marie Cazalis had the idea of profiting from the vogue . . . she baptized the clique of which she was the centre, and the young people who Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir prowled between the Tabou and the Pergola, as existentialists . . . [They] wore the new ‘existentialist’ uniform .. . imported from Capri .. . of black sweaters, black shirts, and black pants.

In short, existentialism was not only a philosophy, but as any potted history of our century will point out, it had also become a ‘movement’ and a ‘fashion’.

Although the name ‘existentialism’ is only of wartime vintage, the special use of the word ‘existence’ which inspired the name is older. Both Heidegger and Jaspers put it to this use, the latter in fact referring to his writings of the 1920s and 1930s as Existenzphilosophie. The two Germans had, in turn, taken up this special use of ‘existence’ from Kierkegaard who, in Jasper’s words, had provided its historically binding meaning’. The story does not end there, since Kierkegaard was apparently only giving a new twist to the word as used by German idealists like Schelling, whom he heard lecturing in the Berlin of 1840—but I shall not pursue the story that far.

What is this special sense of ‘existence’ from which existentialism derives its name? A full answer would amount to little less than a complete account of existentialism, so for the moment I only indicate an answer. First, ‘existence’ refers only to the kind of existence enjoyed by human beings. Second, it refers only to those aspects of human being which distinguish it from the being of everything else—‘mere’ physical objects, for instance. Human beings have digestive systems, but since these are ‘merely’ physical in nature, they are not a constituent of human existence. A cardinal sin, from the existentialist viewpoint, is to conceive of human existence as being akin to the kind of being enjoyed by ‘mere’ things. The word ‘sin’ is to be taken with some seriousness here, for it is not just an error to think in this way, but self-deception or ‘bad faith’.

Humans differ from non-humans in countless ways, of course. They can laugh, for example. So what are the distinctive traits which the word ‘existence’ is seeking to highlight? First of all, human existence is said to have a concern for itself. As Kierkegaard puts it, the individual not only exists but is ‘infinitely interested in existing’. He is able to reflect on his existence, take a stance towards it, and mould it in accordance with the fruits of his reflection. Or, as Heidegger would say, humans are such that their being is in question for them, an issue for them. Second, to quote Kierkegaard again, ‘an existing individual is constantly in the process of becoming.’ The same, you might say, is true of objects like acorns or clouds. But the difference is supposed to be this: at any given point in an acorn’s career, it is possible to give an exhaustive description of it in terms of the properties—colour, molecular structure, etc.—which belong to it at that moment. But no complete account can be given of a human being without reference to what he is in the process of becoming—without reference, that is, to the projects and intentions which he is on the way to realizing, and in terms of which sense is made of his present condition. As Heidegger puts it, the human being is always ‘ahead of himself’, always unterwegs (‘on the way’).

The two features of human existence just mentioned lend one sense to that most famous of existentialist dicta, ‘existence precedes essence’. What a person is at any given time, his ‘essence’, is always a function of what he is on the way to becoming in pursuit of the projects issuing from a reflective concern for his life. Unlike the stone, whose essence or nature is ‘given’, a person’s existence, writes Ortega y Gasset, ‘consists not in what it is already, but in what it is not yet . . . Existence . . . is the process of realizing . . . the aspiration we are.’

Such characterizations obviously call for elucidation, and existentialism might be thought of as the sustained attempt to provide this, and to explore the implications for people’s relationship to the world, each other, and themselves. As they stand, these characterizations are little more than promissory notes. Nor do we progress much further, at this stage, by trawling in some of the further characterizations which many people associate with the existentialist picture of human being. Existence, they will have heard, is a constant striving, a per- petual choice, it is marked by a radical freedom and responsibility; and it is always prey to a sense of angst which reveals that, for the most part, it is lived inauthentically and in bad faith. And because the character of a human life is never given, existence is without foundation; hence it is abandoned, or absurd even. The reason why recitation of this existentialist lexicon does not, of itself, advance our understanding is that, without exception, these are terms of art. None of them should be taken at face value, and the thinking of Sartre and others is badly misconstrued if they are.

Why do existentialists employ the word ‘existence’ to express their conception of human being? Partly because of precedent. Kierkegaard so employed the word, and those who more or less shared his insights followed suit. But there is more to it than that. For one thing, Kierkegaard’s adoption of the term was not arbitrary. According to a venerable tradition, to hold that a certain thing exists is to hold that certain essences or ‘universals’ are instantiated, or that certain concepts or definitions are satisfied, by it. The number 2 exists, while the greatest number does not, because in the one case, but not the other, the appropriate essences—such as being between 1 and 3—are instantiated. It was Kierkegaard’s contention that, however matters may stand with numbers, this doctrine was mistaken when applied to individual persons. A person has a ‘concreteness’, ‘particularity’ and ‘uniqueness’ which make it impossible to equate him with an aggregate of instantiated universals. Søren cannot be ‘reduced’ to the entity instantiating the following universals . . ., since there is no way of completing the list. Moreover, even if Søren’s friends need to have an essence or concept of Søren in mind in order to recognize him, Søren himself does not. He is aware of his existence directly, ‘unmediated’ by concepts. To know who he is, he does not have to check through a list of definitions to make sure he fits them all. Kierkegaard’s constant references to ‘the existing individual’, ‘the existing thinker’ and the like, are intended to remind his readers—versed, presumably, in the traditional doctrine or its more recent Hegelian variation—that, with human beings, their existence is peculiarly ‘particular’, and known to themselves ‘immediately’.

A more decisive reason, having to do with the etymology of the word ‘exist’, helps to explain Heidegger’s use of it. In some of his writings he spells the word with a hyphen, ‘ex-ist’, thereby drawing attention to its derivation from the Greek and Latin words meaning ‘to stand out from’. This etymology is fairly apparent in related words like ‘ecstacy’, for the ecstatic mystic is someone whose soul is liberated from, and so stands outside of, his body. When this origin of ‘exist’ is borne in mind, it is an apt word for expressing the existentialist thought, mentioned above, that in some sense a person is always already ‘beyond’ or ‘ahead’ of whatever properties characterize him at a given time. If, as it is sometimes put, the person is ‘in’ the future towards which he moves, he stands out from his present. He ex-ists.

An annoying complication is that some existentialists use the word in a more restricted way, applying it only to what others would call authentic existence. Although human being is radically unlike that of anything else, people may think and behave as if this were not so, like Sartre’s man of bad faith who takes his cowardice or homosexuality to be a fixed and inevitable property, and behaves accordingly. Some of our writers prefer to withhold the term ‘existence’ in the case of lives marked by chronic bad faith. Kierkegaard distinguishes ‘existing essentially’ from ‘loosely called existing’, reserving the former for the life of a person who has ‘willed . . . ventured . . . with full consciousness of one’s eternal responsibility’. Jaspers is equally demanding: ‘I am only in the earnestness of choice’, and ‘Existenz . . . is present when I am authentic.’ I shall not follow this practice of loading the term with an evaluation. ‘Existence’ will refer to the distinctive being of humans which can then be qualified by words like ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’.

The word ‘existentialism’ has an additional and very important source. For many philosophers, the word ‘existential’ is most at home in the expression existential phenomenology. There is general agreement that the most significant versions of twentieth-century existentialism are developments, welcome or perverse, from phenomenology, the philosophy elaborated by Edmund Husserl in the early years of the century. Heidegger describes Being and Time as a work of phenomenology, while Merleau-Ponty and Sartre use the word in the title or subtitle of their main works. For our immediate purposes, the exact character of phenomenology does not matter. (I discuss it, in some detail, in chapter 3.) But its central feature, crudely expressed, is a focus upon the meanings (in a rather special sense) and acts of meaning in virtue of which we refer, and otherwise relate, to the world. What does matter here is that, according to Husserl, this examination could only be properly conducted by first suspending our usual assumptions about the actual existence of things in the world. In a procedure akin to Descartes’ methodological doubt, the phenomenologist must suspend belief, or ‘put in brackets’, any reality beyond consciousness and the ‘meanings’ in which consciousness trades. The scientist studies colour by examining its physical properties, but the philosopher concerned with the ‘meaning’ of colour must put aside the assumption of real, physical existence made by the scientist. Otherwise, the phenomenological investigation will be contaminated by irrelevant, contingent data having nothing to do with ‘meanings’.

Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre are unanimous that this programme of ‘pure’ phenomenology is impossible. One can neither doubt, nor seriously pretend to doubt, the reality of the world. Even ‘to ask oneself whether the world is real,’ writes Merleau-Ponty, ‘is to fail to understand what one is asking.’ Consciousness cannot imagine itself divested of a world, for ‘it always finds itself at work in the world.’ There is no prospect for examining ‘meaning’ and the ‘meaning’-making activities of conscious beings unless these latter are taken to be practically and bodily engaged in the real world. Human being is, in Heidegger’s phrase, Being-in-the-world, so that phenomenological understanding must be ‘existential’, not ‘pure’.

Is the word ‘existential’ ambiguous, then: expressing, on the one hand, a special conception of human being and, on the other, the insistence that the world cannot be ‘bracketed’? This would be to overlook an intimate connection between the themes of human existence and existential phenomenology. For Heidegger and those who follow him, it is precisely because the being of humans takes the form of existence that any account of it must presuppose their engagement in the real world. Only if we were creatures of a quite different sort—immaterial souls, say—could we perform even the thought-experiment of divorcing ourselves from the surrounding world. Conversely, the possibility of an existential phenomenology requires that conscious being takes the form of existence. For the ‘meaning’-making activities upon which it focuses could only be those of creatures who exist. Instead of treating ‘existential’ as ambiguous, then, we should approach existentialist philosophy— at least in its paradigmatic forms—along two different, but converging routes.

Existentialists and ‘The Existentialist’
I described the rapid spread of the ‘existentialist’ label after 1945, but how do we determine when the label is appropriate? Who are to count as existentialists? I shall say a little by way of an answer before suggesting that we should not overtax ourselves in search of a precise one.

It is sometimes said that the reason it is hard to draw up an exact list is that existentialism is a mere ‘tendency’, rather than a coherent philosophy. Now while I do not want to minimize the differences between individual writers, I do hope to demonstrate that there is a coherent, definable philosophy of existentialism—no less, though perhaps no more, homogeneous than logical positivism, say, or pragmatism. The reason it is hard to place certain thinkers is not that the characterization of existentialism must be vague, but because they fit the characterization in some respects and not others. The taxonomist, then, has a weighting problem on his hands.

Existentialism is what esistentialists embrace, and existentialists are people who embrace existentialism. How do we break into this cycle? It is generally agreed that if Heidegger and Sartre are not existentialists, then no one is. A natural policy, therefore, is to apply the name to these two, and then to others according to their kinship with them. This policy is not, however, without problems. For one thing, the thinking of both men underwent large changes. Heidegger’s ‘turn’ (Kehre) in the 1930s was in a direction away from the existentialist position of Being and Time; and some people find precious little of Sartre’s earlier views in his Marxist writings of the 1960s and thereafter. But this is not a serious problem: we can stipulate that by ‘Heidegger’ and ‘Sartre’ we mean the authors of certain works only.

A more serious criticism is that the policy exaggerates the affinity between Heidegger and Sartre. It is ludicrous to hold that ‘no kinship ever bound the two philosophers . . . that they are radically opposed in every respect’, but the days are gone when Heidegger was treated merely as an impenetrable precursor of Sartre. There is now a tendency to read Sartre as a wayward pupil who produced a bowdlerized version of the master’s thoughts. Hubert Dreyfus, for instance, thinks that Sartre’s revamping of Heidegger was a ‘disaster’, and that the latter had some justification for calling Being and Nothingness ‘Dreck’ (‘rubbish’).

This tendency is as unfortunate, I believe, as the one it succeeded. Rather than devote a separate section to the relation between Heidegger and Sartre, I hope that my discussions of their positions throughout the book will show their affinity. But here are a couple of remarks in advance. First, one should not take Heidegger’s own hostile judgement on Sartre too seriously. Only the first few pages of his copy of Being and Nothingness were cut open, a little Dreck being enough, it seems. By 1946, moreover, when Heidegger wrote his criticism of Existentialism and Humanism—not the most dependable expression of Sartre’s views, incidentally— he had moved a long way from the ideas which had inspired Sartre. When, a few years after the war, Sartre visited Heidegger in his mountain retreat, his disillusioned verdict was that Heidegger had gone mystical.

More important, the new tendency rests on misunderstandings of Sartre. It treats him as a Cartesian, wedded to Descartes’ notion of the cogito as the substantial subject of consciousness, and to a dualistic division of reality into the Being-for-itself of consciousness and the Being-in-itself of things. Despite some of Sartre’s misleading remarks in these connections, it will emerge, I hope, that:

1 He is as opposed as Heidegger to any Cartesian notion of the cogito. (‘“Cartesianism” is simply used [by Sartre] as the name of the view that consciousness is always aware of itself,’ writes Mary Warnock.

2 ‘Subjectivity’, as Sartre explains, is simply a name for something Heidegger himself insists upon: that ‘man is . . . something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so.’

3 The For-itself/In-itself distinction is a clumsy reiteration of Heidegger’s between the being enjoyed by humans (Dasein) and that possessed by things. For neither of them is the distinction, in one crucial sense, dualistic: since they insist that it is impossible to conceive of conscious activity and the world in isolation from one another.

These remarks are contentious and, at this early stage, will not be intelligible to some readers. Their point is to herald the affinity between the two men which warrants the policy of understanding existentialism, initially, by reference to them. But which other philosophers are sufficiently close to these two to belong on the list? There are some whose very style and vocabulary make them prime candidates— Jaspers, Merleau-Ponty, Ortega y Gasset and Simone de Beauvoir. The much neglected Ortega, for example, wrote a couple of essays in 1940, three years before the publication of Being and Nothingness, which for several pages could be mistaken for elegant summaries of Sartre’s book. There are others who would never pass the stylistic and lexical tests, but whose concerns and conclusions are close to those of the people already mentioned. Marcel, for instance, and the author of existentialism’s most lyrical work, Martin Buber. I and Thou, which appeared in German in 1923, might compete with Jaspers’ Psychology of World-Views for the description, ‘the earliest writing in the later socalled existentialism’.

Each of these writers subscribes to the two main themes (described above, ‘The Sources of a Name’) of the distinctive character of human existence and existential phenomenology. (This is so even when they do not indulge in the terms of art of phenomenology and Existenzphilosophie.) Each of them emphasizes how, in its being an ‘issue’ for itself and ‘ahead’ of itself, human existence is to be contrasted with the being of whatever is ‘thinglike’. And each of them insists upon our engagement with a real world as a precondition for understanding those most fundamental of our activities, the making and grasping of ‘meanings’. For each of them, the world and human existence are only intelligible in terms of one another. Merleau- Ponty’s dictum, ‘The world is wholly inside me, and I am wholly outside myself’, might have been spoken by any of them.

There is something else these writers share— something, I shall be arguing, which serves to motivate and guide the whole existentialist enterprise. This is the sense that the most serious question with which philosophy has to deal is that of alienation in its various forms—alienation from the world, from one’s fellows, from oneself. It is to the alienation threatened by a dualism of mind and body and by the scientific image of an objective reality untainted by human concerns, and not to the spectre of scepticism, which philosophy must, before all else, respond. Existentialism itself is just such a response.

Given all this, there is at least one writer who, although he is often included, does not really belong on the list—Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus is, to be sure, peppered with some favourite existentialist terms, like ‘absurdity’, but I have already remarked that, as used by Sartre and others, these are terms of art. What Camus means by ‘absurdity’ is quite different from Sartre. One reason for excluding Camus is that, unlike the rest of our writers, it is not at all his aim to reduce or overcome a sense of alienation or separateness from the world. In the attitude of Meursault, The Outsider, for example, we find a defiant pleasure taken in our alienated condition. Sisyphus, the ‘absurd hero’, feels a ‘silent joy’ in living in a world where ‘man feels an alien, a stranger . . . his exile . . . without remedy.’ Camus wants to invert Merleau-Ponty’s dictum into ‘The world is wholly outside me, and I am wholly inside myself.’ Moreover Camus was, by his own admission or boast, not interested in the weighty philosophical topics which occupied his Parisian friends, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty—the nature of consciousness and perception, the mindbody relation, the problem of ‘other minds’, and so on. Existentialism, as treated of in this book, is not a mood or a vocabulary, but a relatively systematic philosophy in which topics like these are duly addressed. I shall have rather little to say about those, like Camus, who make a virtue out of being neither a philosopher nor systematic.

A question which has vexed a number of commentators is where to place Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. It was Kierkegaard’s use of ‘existence’ which inspired the very name of existentialism, and his notions of ‘dread’ and the ‘Public’ are echoed in Heidegger’s discussions of angst and the ‘they’ (Das Man) (see chapters 7 and 8). But some of the things said about Camus also apply to Kierkegaard. Despite the endless repetition, he does little to develop his intuitions about existence as ‘striving’ and ‘becoming’, and some of those large philosophical topics which failed to disturb Camus scarcely bothered Kierkegaard either. Like Camus, as well, he seems to enjoy the thought that men are aliens in their world. It is only if people do view themselves as ‘homeless’ that they will then seek that personal relationship with God, which is the pivot of Kierkegaard’s concerns.

Nietzsche presents the taxonomist with different problems. Unlike the Dane, he tackles most of the philosophical questions which occupy later existentialist; and in his doctrines of the will to power and perspectivism he is arguing against a dualism of mind and reality. ‘We laugh as soon as we encounter the juxtaposition of “man and world”’; we are ‘sick’ of ‘the whole pose of “man against the world”’. But Nietzsche also makes claims which at least seem to contradict those of later existentialists. For example, he denies that we can act freely. More generally, his naturalism, his urge to treat man as just one species of ‘domestic animal’, runs counter, on the surface anyway, to claims about the distinctive character of human existence. But if Nietzsche’s name appears less often in this book than it may deserve to, the main reason is that he is too large a figure to be contained within it. If proper attention were given to his views, he would, I fear, take things over. (I speak with some experience, having written a book on Nietzsche that was not originally intended to be that.)

Once reasons for and against including Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on the list are given, it matters little whether they are classified as wayward existentialists or, less anachronistically perhaps, as precursors of existentialism. This might matter more if the book were being done ‘by blokes’, but as indicated in the preface the aim is, rather, to reconstruct a certain structure of thought. The important thing is not the card-carrying credentials of this or that writer, but his contribution to the development of that structure. It is because I am uncertain or plain ignorant about the contribution of some people often described as existentialism— Berdyaev and Bultmann, for example—that they do not appear. Some of these exclusions may be unjust, but exclusions anyway have to be imposed if the book is not to degenerate into a mere encyclopaedia of existentialist writings.

The main figure in this book, however, is not Heidegger, Sartre nor any of those mentioned above, but The Existentialist. He is not to be identified with any particular author, but nor is he the ‘average’ existentialist, stripped of whatever opinions distinguish one author from another. A figure who did not take sides on issues which divide these authors would be a pale one indeed. He is, rather, the ‘ideal’ existentialist, who embodies the best wisdom, in his creator’s view, to be gleaned from actual existentialist writers. Put differently, he represents a ‘rational reconstruction’ of existentialist thought.

This book could be regarded as a journey of thought undertaken by The Existentialist. Its starting point is the issue which, in his opinion, is the largest one to which philosophy should respond— that of alienation. As for Hegel and Marx, the issue for him is how alienation is to be ‘overcome’. It is in Husserl’s phenomenology that he finds the clue to this, though Husserl’s ‘pure’ phenomenology must first be converted into an ‘existential’ one. The Existentialist is then equipped to provide a systematic account of our Being-in-the-world, which emphasizes both the logical interdependence of mind and world, and the unique character of human existence. This account enables him to ‘dissolve’ a number of traditional dualisms, like that of mind versus body, which have contributed to people’s sense of alienation.

His account, however, throws into relief the depressing possibility of other dimensions of alienation: estrangement from oneself and estrangement from others. He needs, then, to discuss the notion of self, and the relation between this and experi- ence of others. The Existentialist is now able to describe the forms of self-estrangement, such as ‘bad faith’, which have their basis in relations to others. But to justify his description of our everyday condition as self-estranged, he needs to find evidence that we are capable of a different, ‘authentic’ existence. He finds this in the experience of angst, the ‘anticipation’ of death, and the sense of absurdity. Whatever else an ‘authentic’ existence is, it is one of a certain kind of freedom—‘existential freedom’. Finally, The Existentialist considers what this authentic life of freedom might imply by way of an ethic to guide our relations with one another.

The Existentialist’s journey is one of the most serious a philosopher could make. Not only does it encounter some of the largest and toughest philosophical questions, but it passes through some of the more sombre areas of human enquiry. It is serious, finally, because it is undertaken to ‘overcome’ threats to human integrity and dignity which all but the self-narcoticized must on occasion experience.

I once heard a distinguished analytic philosopher express the wish that his epitaph should read, ‘This man discovered a new sense of the word “If”.’ (He has since died, but I do not know if his wish was fulfilled.) The Existentialist’s ambitions are of a different order, more faithful surely to the original spirit of philosophy.

Some Misconceptions
Existentialism is something everyone has heard of. It belongs among those ‘-isms’, like cubism and surrealism, whose succès de scandale make them part of the consciousness of our century. The popular image is, however, full of misconceptions which need to be scotched if understanding of the philosophy examined in this book is not to be prejudiced. These misconceptions are prevalent among those who have picked up their existentialism from dictionaries, encyclopaedias and popular histories of ideas. Typical is the description of existentialism as ‘the metaphysical expression of the spiritual dishevelment of a post-war age’. So, too, is one historian’s description of it as ‘the assertion that life is more than logic . . . that the subjective and personal must be more highly valued and the objective and intellectualized must be depreciated’. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary entry is particularly wayward: ‘An anti-intellectual philosophy of life, holding that man is free and responsible, based on the assumption that reality as existence can only be lived, but can never become the object of thought’.

The inaccuracy of these descriptions will become plain in the following chapters, but it will be useful here to indicate some reasons for their currency, and to preview some of their deficiencies. Such descriptions encourage a popular view which might be expressed in something like the following words: ‘Existentialism was a philosophy born out of the angst of postwar Europe, out of a loss of faith in the ideals of progress, reason and science which had led to Dresden and Auschwitz. If not only God, but reason and objective value are dead, then man is abandoned in an absurd and alien world. The philosophy for man in this “age of distress” must be a subjective, personal one. A person’s remaining hope is to return to his “inner self”, and to live in whatever ways he feels are true to that self. The hero for this age, the existentialist hero, lives totally free from the constraints of discredited traditions, and commits himself unreservedly to the demands of his inner, authentic being.’

One thing which encourages this kind of view is a failure sufficiently to distinguish existentialist philosophy from the existentialist vogue among black-clad youths prowling between the Tabou and the Pergola, which Simone de Beauvoir described. Film of the young Juliette Greco singing in the late 1940s gives an idea of the chic appeal which feigned ennui and despair apparently had for young Parisians of the time. Few of them, presumably, waded through the six hundred pages of Being and Nothingness, and their interpretation of existentialist freedom as a licence to act as unconventionally as possible, pour épater les bourgeois, was a complete distortion of Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s notion. In fact, they had less affinity with these writers than with the ‘hippies’ of the 1960s or the ‘punks’ of the 1970s.

A second factor has been over-reliance on existentialist fiction. This is compounded when Camus’s novel, The Outsider, is taken as paradigmatic of the genre. Many people, I find, discover the quintessential ‘existentialist hero’ in Meursault: casually smoking on his mother’s coffin, indifferent to God and to marriage, unrepentant at killing an Arab, and unable to find value in anything. In fact, Meursault is no more ‘authentic’ in Sartre’s sense than the bourgeois with his ‘respectability’ and fake ‘sincerity’. Not that the ‘message’ of Sartre’s own novels is always grasped correctly. In The Age of Reason the central character, Mathieu, proclaims, ‘I recognise no allegiance except to myself . . . All I want is to retain my freedom.’ This is his defence of his refusal to marry his pregnant girlfriend. But it is not, as sometimes imagined, Mathieu who is Sartre’s mouthpiece, but his ‘respectable’ brother, Jacques, who says: ‘I should myself have thought that freedom consisted in frankly confronting situations into which one has deliberately entered and accepting one’s responsibilities. You have reached the age of reason, my poor Mathieu . . . But you try to pretend you are younger than you are’. I shall be discussing various works of existentialist fiction, but this is no substitute for examination of the ‘straight’ philosophical works.

The most popular of those works is Sartre’s lecture Existentialism and Humanism, and over-reliance on it is a third source of misconceptions. The lecture was written hurriedly and Sartre soon regretted its publication. For there are passages here which do encourage the view that commitment and moral decision can only be irrational actes gratuits, or based upon nothing but inner conviction. It is here, too, that there is much talk of abandonment and despair, but not set in the wider context of Sartre’s philosophy which lends proper sense to such notions. Sartre’s posthumously published notes, Cahiers pour une Morale, give a much more accurate, if far less punchy, expression to his views at the time than the lecture does.

Let us now take some of the misconceptions one by one. It is quite wrong, first, to regard existentialism as the expression of post-war ‘dishevelment’, despair or malaise. To do so rather obviously confuses existentialism as a philosophy and existentialism as a vogue. All the best-known existentialist works, it should be noted, were written either before the war began or before it ended. To describe existentialism as an expression of an age, moreover, is to suggest that its claims could be only temporarily and locally valid. But if the accounts of the distinctiveness of human existence, of the interdependence of mind and world, of our existential freedom, and so on, are true at all, they are true of human beings at all times and in all places. These accounts, furthermore, stem from reflections on the perennial condition of human beings, and not the particular situation obtaining in post-war Europe. Existentialism, in other words, belongs to philosophy, not to the social sciences.

None of this is to deny that existentialism is historically located. In its mature form, it could not have developed much earlier than it did. The same, though, is true of quantum physics, but it would be absurd to describe that as an ‘expression’ of a particular age. Existentialism grew, in part, out of Husserl’s phenomenology, which in turn was a critical response to nineteenth-century materialism and positivism. So existentialism can certainly be placed in intellectual history: it was not a bolt from the blue. Nor do I want to deny that existentialists have things to say which both help to explain, and are especially pertinent to, modern times. Heidegger, Buber and Marcel all believed that the most salient tendencies of the times, technology and consumerism, are the fall-out from that Cartesian schism between mind and world which turns the latter into a foreign territory, to be conquered and exploited. Existentialism is, in part, directed to the ‘overcoming’ of that schism.

One reason existentialism gets described as a ‘metaphysical expression’ of its age is because it is alleged to give voice to an angst and despair which, it is said, are peculiarly symptomatic of the twentieth-century condition. It is true that several existentialist writers speak much of these notions, but it is crucial here to recall my warning about their use of words as terms of art. As used by Kierkegaard, ‘despair’ refers not to a mood of hopeless gloom, but to the position of someone whose life, a contented one perhaps, ‘hinges upon a condition outside of itself’. Sartre uses it to refer to the recognition that ‘there is no God and no prevenient design, which can adapt the world . . . to my will.’ As for angst, existentialists do not have in mind that fear before a dangerous, uncertain world recorded here by Virginia Woolf:

The war . . . has taken away the outer wall of security. No echo comes back. I have no surroundings . . . Those familiar circumvolutions . . . which have for so many years given back an echo . . . are all wide and wild as the desert now.

Existential angst is, rather, a sense of freedom, of a capacity to strike out on one’s own in the formation of a scheme of beliefs and values. If angst has special significance in modern times, this is not because life has become too ‘dishevelled’ or ‘wide and wild’, but because it has become too comfortable. Beliefs and values are too easily and readily received from what Kierkegaard called the ‘Public’, Nietzsche the ‘herd’, and Heidegger the ‘they’. This angst is not something to be ‘treated’; on the contrary, we need to be called to it, and away from a state of ‘tranquillization’ induced through bad faith.

The wayward definitions of existentialism quoted [earlier] echo the widespread impression that it is an ‘anti-intellectualist’ philosophy, which sets itself against reason to the point of preaching irrationalism—or worse: ‘Existentialism . . . is nothing other than radical nihilism . . . the absolute negation of everything, which leaves only a chaotic and meaningless activity.’ This is nonsense, but more sober versions of the ‘anti-intellectualist’ interpretation require some comment.

The first thing to say is that The Existentialist is not an irrationalist in the sense of supporting his claims by appeal to mystical insight, ‘gut’ feeling, or other non-rational founts of knowledge. He argues, typically, by close description of everyday life, by drawing out people’s own implicit understanding of themselves, and by exposing the incoherence of rival claims. He proceeds, that is, as a philosopher, not a seer. Even the gnomic-sounding Buber argues for the presence of the divine ‘Thou’ in human life by interpreting familiar experiences, and not by appeal to esoteric knowledge.

Second, existentialism does not, in the manner of a Rimbaud or a D. H. Lawrence, exhort us to cultivate wild or ‘vital’ lives in conscious rejection of the exercise of reason. We are not to think with our hearts or our blood. The only possible exception here might be Kierkegaard. The virtue, it seems, of the ‘knight of faith’, like Abraham in Fear and Trembling, is to obey God’s will despite its logical absurdity. The absurdity of faith makes it all the greater. But it is not clear that the pseudonymous ‘author’ of the book represents Kierkegaard’s own settled view, and even the ‘author’ is equivocal: ‘While Abraham arouses my admiration, he also appals me.’ Moreover, Kierkegaard is contemptuous of those who would make a virtue of ‘absurd belief’ in everyday life: it is warranted, if at all, only in very special situations where God issues certain calls to us.

There are, it is true, passages in Existentialism and Humanism where Sartre may seem to suggest that rational deliberation is impossible in the area of moral choice, so that the choice is a mere ‘invention’, an acte gratuit. I shall show later how this is a misinterpretation of Sartre.

While The Existentialist is not, in any serious sense, an irrationalist, he is certainly not a ‘rationalist’ in the philosophical sense that contrasts with ‘empiricist’. He does not hold, that is, that the mind is innately equipped with, or predisposed towards, knowledge of certain truths about the world. This is not because he is an ‘empiricist’, holding that all knowledge is the product of experience. The issue between the two camps is one of several which, for The Existentialist, rest on the false premise that mind and world are logically independent of one another, like a spectator and the show before him. The ‘rationalist’ differs from the ‘empiricist’ only in holding that the spectator arrives with a rich intellectual apparatus through which the passing scene gets filtered.

When cultural historians refer to Western rationalism, they intend something broader than ‘rationalism’ as against ‘empiricism’. They mean a tradition which culminates in the Enlightenment and in the positivist conviction that the true repositories of knowledge are the sciences. Existentialism shares no such conviction, and in that respect might be labelled ‘romantic’. Its hostility to the pretensions of science, however, is not that of the romantic primitivist, for whom Western science has got things wrong, while African magic or Yin—Yang cosmology has got them right. Rather, the claim of science to provide fundamental understanding of the world rests on misconceptions about understanding, the world, and the relation between the two. The vehicles of the fundamental understanding presupposed by all further knowledge are not the theories and products of science or ‘cognition’, but practical activities and ‘moods’. (Heidegger speaks of ‘cognition’ reaching ‘far too short a way compared with the primordial disclosure belonging to moods’). Before we can ‘cognize’ the world, we must first encounter it, both understandingly and affectively, as a world of things to be embraced, avoided, used, discarded, and the like. The world described by the scientist has no claim, therefore, to be the one real world. On the contrary, it is parasitic upon the Lebenswelt, the ‘life-world’ in which we move and acquire our primary understanding. Physics may, in its own sphere, possess an ‘absolute truth’, but that ‘makes no difference to that other absolute, which is the world of perception and praxis’.

Moreover, the scientific pretension requires that it is possible and necessary for the conquest of real knowledge that the world be stripped of everything which human beings have ‘projected’ upon it—from colours to meanings, from smells to values. But this is to suppose that mind and world, subject and object, can be treated in logical isolation from one another and separately examined. This dualism, however, is one of those inherited from Descartes which most stand in need of dissolution. For not only is it incoherent, but it is also partly responsible for the sense of the world as alien, as a place of ‘unimaginable otherness’, accessible if at all only to the man in the laboratory, au fait with event-horizons, closed space-times and other postulates of contemporary physics.

One might, I suppose, characterize The Existentialist’s insistence on the ‘humanness’ of the world as a denial of its ‘objectivity’. But it would be quite wrong to conclude that existentialism is therefore a ‘subjectivist’ philosophy, though the term is often applied. For The Existentialist, the question of whether descriptions of the world are objective or subjective is a bad one. They are not objective, if this means being of a kind which a scrupulously detached spectator would provide, for a spectator completely disengaged from the world could have no conception of it at all. But nor are they subjective, if this means that they are glosses smeared over, and therefore occluding, the world as it is in itself. This idea presupposes, no less than the ‘objectivist’ one does, that there could, at least for God, be a direct, unhindered view of reality ‘with its skin off’ (as Heidegger puts it).

Nor, of course, is existentialism a form of ‘subjective idealism’, according to which so-called external things are really contents of the mind or constructs of the imagination. This view contradicts the main tenet of existential phenomenology, that no sense can be made of mind except as engaged, through embodied activity, in a world which cannot, therefore, be contained ‘inside’ it.

This same point about mind having to be ‘out there’ in the world as praxis should scotch the strangely entrenched idea that existentialism is ‘subjectivist’ in being a philosophy primarily concerned with the ‘subject’, in roughly the Cartesian sense of a mental substance or self underlying consciousness. Robert Solomon, for example, describes existentialism, in France at least, as ‘undeniably Cartesian’, and the ‘culmination’ of what he calls ‘the transcendental pretence’, which includes belief in ‘the remarkable inner richness and expanse of the self’. This is the reverse of the truth, for one of the most salient aspects of existentialism, Gallic versions included, is the onslaught on Cartesian notions of self or subject, and on the dualisms which they inspire. For Nietzsche, the self is a ‘fiction’, invented by people who required something inside others to blame, and inside themselves to go on to an afterlife. Heidegger writes that a person is ‘never anything like a substantive inner sphere’, while Marcel regards the ‘pure subjectivism’ of Descartes’ cogito as among ‘the most serious errors of which any metaphysics has been guilty’. Sartre, we saw, refers to the ‘subjectivity’ which is a ‘principle’ of existentialism, but makes clear that this is not what belongs to the Cartesian subject: it merely indicates that ‘man is a project which possesses a subjective [that is, self-aware] life, instead of being a kind of moss . . . or a cauliflower.’ His animosity towards the Cartesian self is plain enough: it is a ‘bloodthirsty idol which devours all one’s projects’, and the ‘subjectivity’ it possesses is ‘magical’. For, just as magical thought invests objects with spirits, like fetishes and jujus, so philosophers like Descartes have ‘reified’ our mental acts by locating them in a fictitious ‘subjectivity- object’ that they call ‘self’ or ‘ego’.

I could continue considering further senses in which existentialism is not a subjectivist philosophy, but let me mention only one more. The Existentialist certainly does not embrace a subjectivist theory of truth, if by that is meant the view propounded by Protagoras in Plato’s Theaetetus, to the effect that each man is the measure of truth, that truth can only be for me, for you, or whomever. While he cannot accept a definition of truth as correspondence with a reality independent of all human conceptions of it, The Existentialist is perfectly able to accept that beliefs can be objectively true in the sense of being warranted by criteria on which there is tried and tested public agreement.

People may have been misled here by Kierkegaard’s notorious statement that ‘truth is subjectivity [and] to seek objectivity is to be in error.’ Kierkegaard’s meaning, though, cannot be Protagoras’, since he immediately adds that ‘subjective truth’ is ‘an objective uncertainty held fast in . . . the most passionate inwardness’—which implies, of course, that there can be an objective truth of the matter. He is, in fact, trying to make two points, neither of them Protagorean, in connection with a comparison he makes between a Christian who lends merely intellectual assent to his religion, and a heathen with his passionate, lived faith. The former’s belief has greater objective truth, but the latter is more ‘in the truth’. This is, first, because the heathen, although his God is not the true one, better appreciates God’s essential nature: for God is not a Being to whom, if that nature is grasped, a person can remain emotionally indifferent. Second, the heathen’s faith is a truer, more authentic expression of human existence than the cool theology of the Christian. This is because ‘essential existing’, as against ‘loosely-called existing’, demands passion and commitment. Whatever one thinks of these points, and Kierkegaard’s paradoxical way of making them, they are not subjectivist ones in the sense under discussion.

Finally, it is worth recording one aspect of existentialist thinking which might, at a pinch, be described as subjective. An important existentialist thesis is that ‘moods’ and emotions can be vehi- cles of understanding. Now there is a tendency among our writers to focus on the more personal and solitary ‘moods’, those farthest away from the grief or delight which people display in unison at funerals or football matches. I have in mind, for example, the sense of guilt which, for Jaspers, is indicative of the ‘unpeaceful’, ‘antinomial’ nature of Existenz; or the ‘fidelity’ a person may feel towards a dead friend which, for Marcel, indicates the presence of a God who is the source of fidelity. These sombre moods might be described as ‘subjective’ by way of contrast to the ‘social’ ones we display alongside others. Existentialists concentrate upon these because they are, arguably, the most distinctively human; the ones, therefore, which are liable to be most disclosive of the character of human existence. Those television nature programmes which specialize, in the ‘naked ape’ tradition, in telling us how we imitate the beasts and they imitate us, would find it hard to discover analogues in the feline or marsupial worlds to Jaspers’ guilt or Marcel’s fidelity. It is important to note, though, that if we do describe these ‘moods’ as ‘subjective’, there are other senses in which they are certainly not subjective. They are not, for example, irretrievably ‘private’ and incommunicable. Nor are they ‘merely’ subjective, in the sense of having no significant connection with how reality is. On the contrary, they are supposed to be feelings to which, as William James puts it, things are known.

This completes my preliminary survey of some misconceptions about existentialism and of some reasons behind them. The book as a whole will, I hope, confirm that these are indeed misconceptions. We are now ready for The Existentialist to begin the journey whose route I outlined earlier.

Source: David E. Cooper, “Preliminaries,” in Existentialism, Basil Blackwell, 1990, pp. 1–19.


Critical Overview