What is an existential philosophy?

31 May 2013


Sixth in a Series on Existential Risk:

Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, and Jaspers represented different facets of existentialism.

Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, and Jaspers represented different facets of existentialism.

Existentialism and Existential Risk

Sometimes when you talk to people about existential risk they only pick up on the word “existential” and then make a comment about existentialism, which I guess demonstrates that they weren’t listening very closely or that the whole idea of existential risk is so foreign to the way many people think that it takes time for the idea to sink in. Having become aware of this, I sometimes formulate existential risk in terms of “human extinction scenarios,” which actually constitutes a subset of all possible existential risks, but at least gets the general idea across and seems to be less vulnerable to being misconstrued.

To be so misconstrued, however, is understandable, since most people with a passing acquaintance of intellectual debates will have heard the term “existentialism” (perhaps they’ve even heard Sartre’s familiar formulation that existence precedes essence, or maybe they once tried to dip into Heidegger’s Being and Time) while they very well may never have heard “existential risk” as it is employed in its contemporary usage. It is more likely that a random interlocutor might have heard the term “existential threat,” and indeed this might be an opening for a discussion of larger existential threats (larger, that is, that the existential threat that individuals or nation-states pose to each other) that pose genuine existential risks.

But to return to the understandable confusion between existentialism and existential risk as might occur in a semi-casual conversation, especially when talking to someone you might assume to be aware of such things — what is it about existentialism that makes it an existential philosophy, and what is it about existential risk that makes it an existential concern? Is there any common existential core?

Put in its simplest terms, existentialism is a philosophy of existence. This sounds rather unremarkable. Aren’t all philosophies philosophies of existence? Well, no. Many philosophies have been philosophies of essence, even going so far as to consider essences the truly real constituents of the world to the point of existence in its mundane form construed as not real at all. This tradition goes back at least to Plato, who is the most eminent representative of this school of thought, but by no means the last. Existentialism broke — violently — with this tradition on the continent just as positivism broke — again, violently — with this tradition in the Anglophone world. Existentialism was very interested in exactly the kind of mundane existence that Plato called unreal.

So, existentialism is a philosophy of existence. This is why Sartre defined existentialism in terms of the precedence of existence before essence. What, if anything, does this have to do with existential risk? Existential risk, too, is a philosophy of existence, after a fashion. It is, if anything, even more concerned with the mundane world of the everyday than were Sartre or Heidegger. I will try to explain why this is the case.

Both existentialism and existential risk are concerned with asking radical questions that are not ordinarily asked in going about the ordinary business of life. When one gets out of bed, goes about one’s morning routine, and eventually goes to work, one doesn’t ask oneself whether the world will still be in existence tomorrow, or an hour from one, one simply assumes that this is a case and acts upon this assumption. If one does ask these questions, one might end up as an impoverished philosopher, perhaps enjoying the fruits of what Socrates called the “examined life,” but unfortunately not enjoying the fruits of the unexamined life, which might include such simple and innocent enjoyments as sound sleep and knowing where one’s next meal is coming from.

I want to try to make this point in greater detail, and to do so in relation to a classic existentialist text that will allow the reader to make his or her own connections between existentialism and existential risk, if one cares to follow up on the parallels that I will try to suggest below.

In his Being and Time, Heidegger made a distinction between Existentiell and existential, which is confusing because the words look very similar and sound very similar; it would have been less confusing to coin a completely different word to cover the concept that Heidegger wants to get at with the term “Existentiell.” Now, Heidegger exegesis is a highly technical subject, and something that many philosophers have spent their entire lives giving expositions, so I begin with a warning to the reader that my exposition of this Heideggerian distinction is not likely to correspond with that found in Heidegger scholars.

The distinction betweeen existentiell and existential reflects the Heideggerian distinction between beings and Being, as beings are an ontic swarm of actual particulars while Being is the ontological ground of beings and the condition of their possibility. What Heidegger calls “existentiell” is an ontic understanding of things in the world, which corresponds to what Husserl (Heidegger’s one-time mentor) called “the thesis of the natural standpoint” (which it was the imperative of phenomenology to overcome). This might also be characterized in Alfred Marshall’s classic formulation of economics: the ordinary business of life. The existential, in contradistinction to the existentiell, involves the presuppositions that make the existentiell possible, which corresponds to Husserl’s suspension of the thesis of the natural standpoint, in order to get at the ultimate presuppositions of thought.

Here is one formulation of the distinction from Heidegger himself:

We come to terms with the question of existence always only through existence itself. We shall call this kind of understanding of itself existentiell understanding. The question of existence is an ontic “affair” of Da-sein. For this the theoretical transparency of the ontological structure of existence is not necessary. The question of structure aims at the analysis of what constitutes existence. We shall call the coherence of these structures existentiality. Its analysis does not have the character of an existentiell understanding but rather an existential one.

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by Joan Stambaugh, State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 10-11

In other words, you don’t need to know anything about the structure of the world to come to terms with existence in it most mundane forms, but an analysis of what constitutes existence is necessary to a more fundamental coming to terms of existence. This latter is what Heidegger called an existential perspective. As I implied above, I’m not interested in engaging in any extensive Heidegger exegesis. On the contrary, I want to take this philosophical idea, usually expressed in highly abstract terms (as it is expressed in Heidegger) and reformulate it in naturalistic terms.

I‘ve pursued this approach previously in The Mind/Body Problem in the Context of Natural History (when I tried to place Cartesian dualism in the context of natural history) and in A Human, All-Too-Human Eternity (when I tried to place the idea of eternity in the context of natural history. Now I would like to place the Heideggerian distinction between the existentiell and the existential, or between beings and Being, in the context of natural history.

From the perspective of natural history, one comes to terms with existence every day when one goes about one’s practical routine, engaging with the world in a pragmatic and utilitarian fashion. This is the existentiell perspective. The existential perspective takes this further, looking for the structure of existence. And what is the structure of existence from a natural historical perspective? It is one and the same world as that ordinary world of ordinary experience, expect extrapolated radically to its greatest extent. In other words, coming to terms with existence from an existential perspective means coming to terms with Big History, which provides the ultimate (natural historical) context for ordinary experience and its objects.

The parochial world of personal experience is meaningful and valuable on a personal level, and it is easy to go through life as if this is the only world that mattered, but everything personal and particular exists in a context, and your personal life and all its immediate objects are dependent upon the whole history of the world that made all of this possible (diachrony), and apart from this history, there is the whole interconnected web of things in the present that cannot exist unless all the other things exist (synchrony).

Similarly, when we think exclusively in terms of our private and personal lives, we are likely to think of dangers such as being involved in an automobile accident or contracting an illness. These are existential threats to the individual. But the individual life is set in the context of many other lives, and all these lives are set in the context of a living biosphere, and this living biosphere is set in the context of a cosmos that makes it possible for such a thing to exist. This is the perspective of Big History. The existential threats to the individual life scarcely register at the level of Big History, but there are other existential threats that appear at this level of consideration. The existential threats that threaten the many lives that are the context of our individual life, or which threaten the biosphere entire, or which threaten the biosphere-consistent cosmos are existential risks.

From the perspective of the individual, transcending the imperatives and threats of the individual life constitutes a radical form of thought, and a radical rethinking of what is important. This requires, in Heidegger’s terms (though not at all in the sense in which Heidegger intended), “the theoretical transparency of the ontological structure of existence.”

Heidegger is not a philosopher that I greatly admire, but to many people Heidegger is synonymous with existentialism, so I wanted to develop my point in a Heideggerian context, but all existential thought is philosophy of existence, and the interpretation that I have given the above Heidegger quote could be adopted and adapted, mutatis mutandis, to other existential philosophers. The existentialist concern for the individual existence largely remains valid when transferred beyond individual existence.

The fragility and vulnerability of existing things is powerfully expressed in Sartre’s famous novel Nausea:

“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.”

The unreasoning fact of one’s birth and death, and the unreasoning blindness of the will to live that maintains us in existence, makes us as vulnerable to ourselves as we are to others, and this vulnerability seems also to hold for larger wholes that incorporate individuals. Biospheres give birth to invasive species that crowd other species out of existence and threaten the very web of life upon which the invasive species depends; and planets give birth to civilizations that potentially threaten the entire planet. We would just as well say that every existing world is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.

Nietzsche, too, had a sense of this vulnerability, or being a hostage to fortune:

“That my life has no aim is evident even from the accidental nature of its origin; that I can posit an aim for myself is another matter.” (Notes 1873, The Portable Nietzsche, Kaufmann, p.40)

That Nietzsche should add to this palpable sense of vulnerability that I can posit an aim for myself is another matter reminds me of one of the “Proverbs of Hell” that William Blake wrote for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

“The most sublime act is to set another before you.”

Continuing in existence out of the blind, unreasoning will to live is a weakness, as Sartre suggests, but consciously choosing some end or aim is another matter entirely.

Choosing one’s own destiny and taking responsibility both for the choice and for one’s actions was a favorite theme of Sartre (before his later Marxist phase) and a position that he expressed very eloquently in his well known lecture Existentialism is a Humanism (which I have quoted many times, since it has profoundly influenced by own thought). Here is Sartre’s uncompromising formulation of human responsibility:

“If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.”

Sartre repeatedly places this responsibility in a social context. For example:

“I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.”

This is the weakest part of Sartre’s exposition. I agree with it, but I still see the weakness of his assertion. This is not the sort of thing that can be asserted; it must be demonstrated, and Sartre does not attempt a demonstration of how personal responsibility is at the same time social responsibility.

To demonstrate that personal responsibility does entail social responsibility for larger wholes of which the individual is a part, and to do so with the unflinching sense of individual responsibility that Sartre brings to his formulations is a task for our time — a task left undone by the philosophy of existence in its earlier iteration, and remains now as a task for a philosophy of existence in its later iteration.

We can see the relationship between personal responsibility and social responsibility — more than see it, we can feel is viscerally — but to demonstrate these linked responsibilities would require passing beyond both to a theoretical perspective that is a common context of both, and perhaps at this point we pass out of the perspective of natural history and resume a philosophical perspective.

While we may not yet be in possession of a fully explicit and formal expression of these linked responsibilities of the personal and the social, we can grasp what the structure of this must be, and it is this:

Existentialism is the ontogenic formulation of existential risk; existential risk is the phylogenic formulation of existentialism.

. . . . .

danger imminent existential threat

. . . . .

Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

. . . . .

ex risk ahead

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. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

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4 Responses to “What is an existential philosophy?”

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