An Existentialist Philosophy of History

22 November 2009


On the flights from Tampa to Portland I started reading Herbert Marcuse’s essay on Sartre, “Sartre’s Existentialism” from 1948, collected in Marcuse’s Studies in Critical Philosophy.

Herbert Marcuse (19 July1898 – 29 July1979) had difficulty suppressing his contempt for Sartre's early existentialism.

In reading Marcuse on Sartre (with the subtle, sublimated hostility of a Marxist to the early Sartre, who went out of his way to distance himself from Marx and Marxists), it occurred to me that what we could call historical existentialism or historical naturalism are the heirs and continuators of historical materialism. That is to say, they are (or would be, if they were systematically formulated) the philosophical development of Marx’s historical materialism in the light of subsequent philosophical developments.

An existentialist philosophy of history begins from the premiss that existence precedes and creates essence — thus every conception of history that has recognized that individuals and societies are shaped by geography, topography, landscape, and earlier history is history understood in terms of existence preceding essence. Earlier history is, in its turn, a function of earlier naturalistic forces that have shaped that history. Ultimately we must trace this chain of earlier histories backward to the point that human history disappears imperceptibly into natural history.

This idea of an existentialist philosophy of history is very much in the same spirit of what I recently wrote in A Formulation of Naturalism, and, in fact, is not only in the same spirit but may be considered an extension of that post. In that post I argued that contemporary philosophical naturalism could be considered a conservative extension of materialism: naturalism is materialism wherever materialism was adequate, and only goes beyond materialism where materialism fails. Just above I suggested that historical naturalism and historical existentialism are synonymous. In so far as historical existentialism — in which historical existence precedes historical essence — is simply another formulation of historical naturalism, and in so far as naturalism is a conservative extension of materialism, historical naturalism “naturally” becomes a conservative extension of historical materialism.

I make no claim for the novelty of the position stated above; it is nothing but an alternative way to formulate the geopolitical perspective that current events must be seen in the context of history, and history must be seen in the context in which history is made, and that context is geography. I have only cast the net a little wider, and the more comprehensive nature of the thesis makes it appear that much more radical. This is one of the virtues of abstract and general thinking: once particular issues are framed in these terms, matters otherwise only implicit become explicit.

Perhaps more problematic yet is that I should burden the above formulation with the tag “existentialist,” since existentialism suffered from the irredeemable fate of becoming a briefly popular sensation in the middle of the twentieth century, so that it now sounds terribly dated. On the one hand, I should not allow popular taste to prejudice a valid philosophical position. On the other hand, it could be argued, in a similar spirit to the argument in made in A Formulation of Naturalism that the essential conceptions of existentialism have been superseded by more recent, and more accurate, philosophical formulations. For the moment, I will allow the label to stand.

I have, in this forum, several times quoted Ortega y Gasset’s famous line that man has not an essence but a history. This is also in the spirit of an existentialist philosophy of history. One might take Ortega y Gasset’s bon mot as an alternative formulation of Sartre’s famous dictum that existence preceding essence. In both, the emphasis falls upon man’s historical, temporal, actual existence and denies that there is any eternal, essential nature of man. In so far as Ortega y Gasset’s formulation sharpens the point by denying the essence that Sartre delayed and subordinated, he sharpens it to a point that an existentialist philosophy of history so conceived comes into conflict with other conceptions of history.

Recently in The Incommensurability of Civilizations and Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations I wrote, “Each civilization is not only distinct, but each is based on a distinct idea of civilization.” And, citing a particular example, “We can explain both the continuity and the periodizations of Western civilization by reference to a basal ideal that changes over time.” Now, in so far as the idea of a civilization is similar to the essence of man (and, while the two are clearly distinct, I think it is fair to say that each conception is integral with the other), and in so far as an existentialist conception of history requires that we abandon any essence of man, then an existentialist conception of history, it would seem, must abandon all pretense of history that makes reference to idea, ideal, and essence.

This is the dilemma that faces me now. I do not say that these two approaches cannot be reconciled and rationalized, but I do say that some effort at conceptual clarification is necessary to that reconciliation and rationalization.

. . . . .

More on the Philosophy of History

Natural History and Human History

The Continuity of Civilization and Natural History

An Exposition of Hegel

Of What Use is Philosophy of History in Our Time?

Philosophy of History in Our Time, Revisited

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


2 Responses to “An Existentialist Philosophy of History”

  1. interesting – would like to read more about your take on Marcuse and his critique of existentialism as “part of the very ideology which it attacks, and its radicalism is illusory”

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for your interest. It’s a bit predictable that Marcuse, as a communist, would be critical of existentialism. For a Marxist, existentialism is simply another expression of the ideological superstructure that fails to deal on the level of the economic base. This is not, however, my point of view, but I have written a post on Marcuse quite some time ago, Marcuse on the Post-WWII settlement, which you might find interesting. However, I realize now that the argument I made in this post — taking as my point of departure Marcuse’s post-WWII reflections on the futility of arming the people as a revolutionary strategy in a technological world — is perhaps invalid in the light of my most recent post, The Valorization of Protest. If the unarmed masses are capable of popular revolution even against states in possession of the technology of mass control, then this changes the political equation. However, this doesn’t have much to do with existentialism. More to the point here are my recent reflections on the nature of what an existential philosophy is, and whether recent work on existential risk by Bostrom et al., constitutes an existential philosophy, and, if it does, whether it is in turn vulnerable to a Marcusian critique.

      Best wishes,


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