25 April 2013: did someone say “Existentialism”?

I produced this for a student at a learning centre way back in 2009. I found it interesting, and I need my copy of Husserl from my library on Lamma.


1.1. Major figures
1.1.1. Kierkegaard: Danish philosopher concerned with his loss of Christian faith who developed a proto-Existentialism to justify a return to faith in a world where science seemed, to Kierkegaard, to drain the world of meaning
1.1.2. Nietzche: German: realized that we’re all motivated by self-interest. Decided that any “story” to the contrary is used by ruling classes to create willing servants
1.1.3. Husserl, German: created the ontology of existentialism as a form of logical grammar, an analysis of the way we really situate ourselves in the world we actually live in using language. Husserlian “phenomenology” starts with early Wittgenstein although there’s no evidence Husserl read the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus: der Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist (literally, “the world is all what is what the case”, in CK Ogden’s translation, “the world is what is the case”: Ogden left out ist alles which is a “closure condition”, meaning that Wittgenstein probably meant that “the world” is all and only the facts).

Husserl, however, refused Wittgenstein’s reductionism because whatever the “logically most simple elements of the world” might be in Wittgenstein, they are not part of the given world of “shoes and ships and sealing wax”. Husserl’s ontology is closer to that of Bertrand Russell’s before Russell met Wittgenstein: names name real phenomena which cannot be reduced to elements: a tree is what is given to us as a tree. Its reality is what sort of sentences it can meaningfully appear: and, importantly, we know this only by testing what sentences can be used meaningfully in a community. “Trees talk” doesn’t have an ordinary communicative meaning except in metaphorical discourse when we discuss “communing with nature”, by which we mean something different from ordinary talking.

1.1.4. Heidegger, German: based on Husserl, applied the Existentialist ethical doctrine of “authenticity” to ontology. Consider the lion in the wild and the lion in the zoo: for Husserl they are the same kind of being. Not for Heidegger who notices that the lion in the zoo has been reduced to a mangy Type (the “idea of the lion”) because it can no longer do its lion thing (running around, eating giraffes, chasing females, etc.)

Heidegger’s major work, Being and Time, is one of the most unreadable philosophical books ever written. Emo guys drag it around today even as we used to drag Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness: to impress girls on public transportation.

Why is it so difficult? Because unlike an “analytic” philosopher, or many other philosophers in the Anglo-American “scientific” tradition, Heidegger thinks that you’re doing ethics when you do pure ontology. He speaks of a peasant’s relationship to his tools. The peasant is not some careless factory worker who breaks tools and wastes raw materials because the peasant feels a responsibility to and respect for his tools and raw materials. His world is not “disenchanted”.

Heidegger’s “Being” (Sein) resembles Plato’s Good but it is far more fused with matter than Aristotle’s “Creation”. This is because unlike Aristotle and Plato, Heidegger did not separate form and content.

The ancients found it easy to believe that “in the beginning, the world was without form and void” and that it either in (Platonism and neo-Platonism) ascended in a hierarchy to pure form cleansed of “dross” (an archaic word for useless matter) or was formed (in Aristoteleanism) by God and man into useful things. This perhaps because the Ancients were more familiar with formlessness in nights unilluminated by electric lights, or wastelands filled with fog.

Heidegger refuses this separation to claim that what is in front of us is neither form nor matter, but what is the case. Ethically this could be a difficult personal problem for which no guide exists.

1.1.5. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir: French couple in a dysfunctional relationship.

Sartre points out that the world is not filled with Being: rather, nothingness, deprivation and unmet desire. This based on his experience in the fall of France in WWII. To Sartre, the Nazis were too full of it: always shouting about life and Being as if merely being big, blonde and a non-smoker gave you special rights.

Therefore in Sartre the only meaning in the world is man-created (de Beauvoir would add aux d’autres, ma vielle, an untranslatable French phrase which here would mean, tell that to the Other, the female, who has nothing between her legs).

This is a rejection tout court of science and nature as guides to action.

1.2. Major theses
1.2.1. Ontology: that of phenomenology (Husserl): the world is what is given to the senses and thought Phenomenology, while owing a debt to Hume, adds Kant to point out that reception of sensory data is not mindless. Phenomenology = Hume + Kant Little kids do not see the world as a multiplicity of named sense data, they see (experience) a “continuum” which varies but which just “is” until they start naming specific experiences such as “Mama” or “poo” Contrast listening to an unfamiliar foreign language without knowing its characteristic sounds and syllables and the situation of the new learner who now knows some individual syllables. The recognized sounds (such as “itowa” to the non Cantonese speaker) now have a name associated with the gweilo’s recognition of the sound.
1.2.2. Epistemology Negative epistemology: almost identical to that of Hume: nothing is certain except “I have sense data” (Hume) or “I actively experience phenomena by making sense of the world every day” (Husserl, phenomenologist, and Existentialist) Positive epistemology: the Existentialist learns by doing: Existentialism is the philosophical forerunner of the emphasis in classrooms of acquiring knowledge by doing things such as group discussion, projects, trips to the beach to clean it up Hume was cool about uncertainty, the Existentialist longs for it and knows it a sign that he is a fallen creature (in religious forms of existentialism) that he has no certainty
1.2.3. Ethics: no ideal moral code exists independent of our choices: our choices define the moral code we live by. Note that this is a direct consequence of epistemological uncertainty above: following Kant (Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals) the Existentialist knows that any of his actions may have evil consequences: Kant points out that “the only thing we can know to be good without reservation is a good will”. Critique of existentialist ethics “Our choices define the moral code we live by” means that any sequence of choices is “adherence to a moral code”, which violates common sense Note that the philosophical maxim, “your philosophical conclusions should not overmuch violate common sense” was first codified (where to “codify” means to write down in some perspicuous fashion) by GE Moore the famous refuter of idealism. But it was used as a guideline prior to Moore, by philosophers including Hume and Aristotle Hannah Arendt, a philosopher with links to Existentialism, discovered in interviewing Adolf Eichmann (an architect of the Holocaust) that Eichmann in fact considered the moral implications of his deeds and decided that they were good. Eichmann thought that Europe should be judenrein, free of Jews. The Existentialist answer is that not all sets of choices are good. Two answers are given. “Authenticity”

Choices must be “authentic”, that is, they must cohere in some way visible to the community in which the chooser lives


2 Responses to “25 April 2013: did someone say “Existentialism”?”

  1. Thanks for the education! My view is that as we can only know about the world through our perception of it, then that is all we can reliably say there is – perception. But I don’t think this precludes notions of god and evil, since within this relative reality we experience cause and effect, actions leading to either harm or help as judged by collective common sense. Perhaps this puts me in the camp of Hume and Kant? I’m unsure, but enjoyed the mental workout!

  2. spinoza1111 Says:

    It does put you into Hume’s camp. If you go on to say that you believe that our peculiar organs of sensation, the way we see for example (as opposed for example to the way cats or fish see) then we are also in Kant’s Kamp. If we’re in Kant’s Kamp we are also in Hume’s camp (but not vice-versa) because Kant’s philosophy is logically dependent on naive empiricism, e.g., the notion that all (or a significant portion of all as we’ll clarify) knowledge comes from sense data.

    Kant did believe in a category of knowledge markedly different from sense data. He believed that propositions that had to be true by virtue of our sensory apparatus (“all objects have some color”) constitute knowledge, but of a radically different sort: synthetic a priori. Apriori because certain, synthetic because interesting and informative, even debatable (aren’t there objects with no color? Or are they grey?).

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