Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Existentialist Bafflegab And Camus's The Stranger


On existentialist bafflegab and Camus's The Stranger

Philip Mairet in his introductory essay to Sartre's essay Existentialism & Humanism says that existentialism is a philosophy of subjectivism, that the root of all human anxiety is our need for authenticity, which itself is rooted in our need to know we exist. The dilemma of existence arises, he says phenomenology says, from our being caught between the unknowinginess of objects and our self unknowingness as perceiving subjects. In that in between lies epistemological chaos paradoxically  coupled with our innate need, springing from our need to know we exist, to be responsible for our actions, that they be meaningful so that by that we achieve authenticity. We escape, strive to escape, the anguish created by these needs by starting with an understanding that so things are and not otherwise, are not what they are not. And we can transcend anguish, after that realization, by creating projects and purposes that then confer meaning on us as subjectivities and upon "the world of objects--all meaningless otherwise and in themselves." (P. 14) By so doing, we get the authentic knowledge we exist, our "transcendent need and desire." (P 14)  Not many can do this. Most of us find reassurance by thinking about death as little as possible and by losing ourselves in the worship of "idols such as humanity, science, or some objective divinity." (P 15)

I think to myself that all this can't withstand even not very probing scrutiny. 

The reduction of all human anxiety to an existentialist formula and catchphrase isn't argued for, isn't demonstrated, is just asserted without cause to agree with it. That we all in varying degrees crave affirmation and recognition is a truism rather than a truth and as such spawns simplistic self helpism rooted in self esteem as an all consuming premise. But that truism doesn't exhaust the sources of human motivation nor the causes of anxiety. Which is why to claim that it does is reductive and constitutes self help rooted in self esteem in principle undifferentiated from this existentialist notion, which is, to my mind, exactly self help rooted in self esteem gussied up in more dramatic and highfalutin language.

Same with the apparent "dilemma of our existence." Certainly, we can't fully know ourselves and we can't in principle know everything about the world of objects, which in fact we populate while we perceive them. But is the result of that really chaos giving rise to our anxiety and dread, which we can either run away from in bad faith or in good faith embrace and transcend by our purposes and projects? Again there is truism here more than truth, triteness masking as profundity. The world can be mystifying. There is so much we don't know. Most of us want purposeful lives and anxiety can certainly come from feelings of purposelessness, triviality and failure. But do we need pages and pages of arcane vocabulary to understand this? What sentient adult doesn't understand it, feel it. And thus we in the main try to give meaning to our lives in what we do, chased by a felt need to do. But in that, and in what we don't know, are we really in a universal condition of chaos marked by anguish? Surely this is vastly overstated. Surely, we, most of us, have sufficient provisional working senses of ourselves and the world such that we can get along albeit imperfectly but not mired in sickening dread.  

Next to last, by what criteria are the existential projects and purposes to be measured? Mairet's Introduction gives no clue. If my purpose and project is to collect varieties of lint, then on what basis is that less transcendent than fighting to save lives? If the issue is subjectivity and the way out of enveloping nothingness, then on what ground does one's affirmation through a project stand over another's, especially if we lose ourselves in "idols" such as humanity or science? On what Mairet says, the lint collector haunted by the spectre of death and rising over it with the fabulousness of his lints will be more authentic, will live more fully, more meaningfully, than the curer of a terminal disease who doesn't think a lot of his own mortality. It is, I think, a telling mark against the corner in which the nihilist underpinnings of Mairet's argument force him that much less fancy folks than existentialists, of which less fancy folks I count myself as one, have no trouble seeing the greater human significance of the disease curer over the lint collector and which of them, likely, has the more fulfilled, meaningful life.

Finally, it is that very underpinning nihilism that makes an absurdity of Mairet's argument. Maybe we can't derive an ought from an is, some smart people think we can, but we can't for sure derive something from nothing. That is why Mairet can offer no criteria for distinguishing some purposes and projects from others, why they all stand equal under existentialist law. For if there were distinguishing criteria marking the better and the worse, the more important from the less important, the moral from the immoral, the purposeful from the purposeless, other than how they make us feel, then the very bottom of the argument--the meaningless  of the world and ourselves in it-- falls out. The distinguishing criteria would spell out meaning that the bottom of the argument asserts doesn't exist.

And that, btw, is the unresolvable contradiction between Mersault's pridefulness and vindictiveness at the end The Stranger and the book's theme of absurdity, that nothing matters.

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