Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Amazing May 8

May on Existentialism

Our author Rollo May gives an excellent introduction to existentialism which I have discussed before in these pages. Like most other commentators he mentions the utter confusion surrounding this term. Like the term “love,” it has been bandied about to mean anything the user of the term wishes it to mean. If anything, existentialism is a pervasive and profound sensitivity at the very heart of our culture. May puts it thus:

Existentialism...is an expression of profound dimensions of the modern emotional and spiritual temper and is shown in all aspects of our culture. It is found not only in psychology and philosophy but in art – vide Van Gogh, Cézanne and Picasso – and in literature – vide Dostoevski (sic), Baudelaire, Kafka, and Rilke. (Op. cit., p. 48)

May’s distinct angle on existentialism that I love is his belief that it is a process that endeavours to forge links between the subject and the object in the person of the real being in question. For example, I am now the subject and object of these words that I am typing insofar as they are an attempt to understand what it is that I, Tim Quinlan, am about as a human being at this very moment in time. Existentially, I am both subject and object of my own thoughts here and now. Once again, it is that good old whipping boy called René Descartes who separated out the subject from the object some four hundred years ago and we have been suffering the consequences of his Cartesian dualism ever since. Again in May’s own words:

Existentialism, in short, is the endeavour to understand man by cutting below the cleavage between subject and object which has bedevilled Western thought and science since shortly after the Renaissance. This cleavage, Binswanger calls ‘the cancer of psychology up to now... the cancer of the doctrine of subject-object cleavage of the world.’ (ibid, p. 49)

I also agree with May where he points out that there were existential themes in all literatures ab initio, e.g., in Socrates, in Augustine and in Pascal, not to mention many others. One could also argue that there are existential themes in Wisdom Literature and in the Psalms in the Bible, e.g., the Book of Job and Qoheleth, both of which deal with the weighty themes of how to live life in the face of innocent suffering.

However, existentialism rose to prominence as a particular way of approaching human existence in this world with Soren Kierkegaard who protested vehemently in his writings against the reigning rationalist of his day, namely Hegel. The French Catholic existentialist Jacques Maritain accused the smug Hegel of promoting “a totalitarianism of reason.” Soren Kierkegaard argued that Hegel’s identification of abstract truth with reality as an illusion which amounted to trickery. It’s hard to disagree with Kierkegaard from an experience-centred or holistic approach to life.

“Truth exists,” wrote Kierkegaard, “only as the individual himself produces it in action.” (Quoted ibid., p. 49)

In short, then idealists or rationalists could see man only as a subject – in the tradition of the “I think therefore I am” of poor old Descartes. Likewise, existentialists fought hard against philosophies which tried to reify man or reduce him solely to a material entity – that is, man as an object to be calculated and controlled. For the existentialists one needed to be subject and object, not one or the other. Both/and must always supersede either/or. May quotes some lovely words from Ludwig Feuerbach, an early sociological existentialist who said: “Do not wish to be a philosopher in contrast to being a man...do not think as a thinker... think as a living real being. Think in Existence.” (Quoted ibid., p. 50)

Humanity as constantly Emerging

May gives us loads of interesting ideas, and wonderful little throw away remarks which are themselves quite profound. One example of this is his etymological analysis of the word “existence” which he tells us comes from the root “ex-istere” and which means literally “to stand out, to emerge.” This is exactly what existentialists sought to do, to portray man in the totality of his being as an emerging or becoming reality. In short, the existentialist approach is always dynamic. Existence always refers to coming into being, that is, to becoming.


This is a very important word in existentialism and in existential therapy. This word can never be used in a static or noun or substantive sense. Rather, it must always be used in its verb form, the present participle of the verb “to be.” Then May introduces his readers to the philosophical term “ontology” which is really a sophisticated word for the science or knowledge of being and comes from the Greek word “ontos” which is Greek for "being." For existentialists existence always precedes essences. Essence is the very heart of something, or the central point or essential law that something can be boiled down to, and so all sciences seek to get to the essential truths that can be stated as provable laws. And so, ironically behind all sciences, as it were, lurks “essentialist metaphysics.”

Three apples plus three make six apples, and this will always be an essential truth, but when eaten, and a starving human being has no more apples, the probability of starvation and death loom large as existential concerns. Returning once again to May’s own words:

.. that all men must die is a truth; and to say that such and such a percentage die at such and such ages gives a statistical accuracy to the proposition. But neither of these statements says anything which really matters to each of us namely, that you and I must alone face the fact that at some unknown moment in the future we shall die. In contrast to the essentialist propositions, these latter are existential facts. (Ibid., p. 51)

In short, then, a proposition can be true without being real. Existentialism is all about making truths real or lived if you like. One hears many young people today say “keep it real, man, keep it real!” They are really existentialists in this! Of course, there is often a large gap between what is abstractly true and what is existentially real. As a practising teacher who has recently finished a postgraduate diploma in special education I had to learn and assimilate all the theory. However, I also was trained to put it into practice by making out class, weekly and termly notes and objectives and all of this was monitored by supervisors. Now, it was difficult making the theory meet the reality of practice. This, I believe, is a good if simple example of an existential approach to things.

Far from being anti-rational or anti-intellectual the early existentialists and their counterparts today seek to forge a new alliance between man as subject and object of his own life. Kierkegaard and the existential thinkers of his day and ours appeal to a reality underlying both subjectivity and objectivity.

In other words, existentialists, like the theorists and practitioners of depth psychology, start with the human being in his/her totality. They argue that it is not so much Reality or Being that is the object of cognitive experience but “existence” itself in this or that human being. In the light of these comments, May can say:

It is by no means accidental that ... Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, happen also to be among the most remarkable psychologists (in the dynamic sense) of all time, and that one of the contemporary leaders of this school, Karl Jaspers, was originally a psychiatrist and wrote a notable text on psychopathology. (Ibid., p. 53)

The whole drift of existentialism as of depth psychology today is to rediscover the living person in his/her totality under all that compartmentalization and dehumanization of modern culture.

No comments: