Early in the 20th Century, really smart people were asking why anyone should pay attention to academic philosophy, since it had become a vapid fanboy exercise in fawning over technocrats as practitioners proved themselves to be serviceable villains for the club who own everything and know better than you do what is right. The focus of intelligentsia increasingly turned to literature and other art for guidance and inspiration. More and more people in coffee shops, bars and on strike lines were asking big questions, of the kind philosophers (professional or not) had been struggling with for years, but they were not focused on philosophy as a technical discipline so much as trying to understand both intellectually and intuitively what it meant to live authentically or even courageously amidst the anxiety brought about by the realization that each person is on his own. While not a philosophical movement per se, this trend is referred to as existentialism. These artists, essayists and activists didn’t think philosophy unimportant. Instead, they just didn’t see why it should be left in the hands of specialists, especially as they mostly agreed that philosophy is lived and not left on a dusty shelf.
One need only refer to how resonant was the poetry of Jim Morrison in what many regard as the quintessential Doors song. He is not only talking about sex and drugs when he screams, “Break on through;” he’s demanding a transvaluation of values in the Nietzschean sense. The themes and ideas of the existentialists have had a much greater impact on how we think about what gives our lives value or takes it away than whole libraries of academic philosophy. Today, as in Socrates’ day, the professional philosopher is often a mere curiosity, and at worst a tool of the establishment for the frustration of critical thinking and obviation of dissent through obfuscation. Accordingly, if one is to develop a framework for ethics that is not itself either irrelevant or worse than useless, one must consider what at least some of the best known existentialists were about. In what follows, I will attempt to provide some context for why existentialism, the political revolutions that were its potting soil and the depth psychology that went with it, represent a radical democratization of philosophy and is a critical jumping off point for any future ethical framework.
Progenitors of Existentialism
Soren Kierkegaard was an early/mid-19th Century Danish critic of modern culture who was ardently Christian but an antagonist to any comfortable morality or political correctness. Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian who was similarly at war with modernity. While the former was Protestant and the latter Russian Orthodox, both shared a concept of dread and strove to challenge fashionable morality in favor of a far more radical approach to one’s awareness of self. While there are important differences between these two, they are both rightly deemed major figures in the focus on upsetting cozy worldviews, exploring the human psyche and challenging individuals to live authentically that became hallmarks of existentialism in the work of Nietzsche and subsequent contributors. They also furnish a sharp counterpoint to contemporaneous idealism and historicism, most notably among those who considered themselves to be followers of Hegel; to utilitarian ethics; and to materialism based on a narrow empiricism believed to be supported by physical science.
While it didn’t appear that Kierkegaard had much if any firsthand experience with Hegel or Hegelians, he viewed Hegelianism as a philosophical bête noire. Kierkegaard thought philosophical systems were like building a glass palace and continuing to live in the hovel next door. For him, living life was about critical moments of choice which depended on one’s attitude of surrender to God. This is profoundly different from either the view of Hegel, who saw God as working in and through history; Marx, who saw history as a temporal and material consequence of evolution that is ever changing; or later Karl Popper, who saw historicism as flawed because it is about determinism and contra freedom, which neither Hegel nor Marx believed. In fact, Kierkegaard would be more likely to say what’s wrong with Hegelian idealism (he didn’t know Marx) was that it posited a God who was not worthy of the appellation; which is little different from deism or atheism, both of which he despised.
For Popper, who was no existentialist, and other philosophers of science in the 19th and 20th centuries, nature is fluid and absolutes only exist insofar as there are tentatively held laws subject to revision as better data are obtained. It is this very non-absoluteness that bothered those who saw reason itself as problematic in the face of the awesomeness of both the divine and the real. This notion exists in Martin Luther, in Kierkegaard and in Dostoevsky. For Kant it was necessary to deny reason to make room for faith. Kant also famously said we exist in our minds and knowing things in themselves, or having direct experience with external reality, was impossible for us. The problem of the thing in itself and man’s ability to connect with reality, both seen and unseen, was of central importance for existentialists, and the turns taken by various thinkers either to defend realism or to explain how one could be in touch with reality despite limitations via intuition or élan vital were important waypoints.
Also of major importance to subsequent intellectual ferment both outside and inside universities was how we think about time. The notions of history and historicism were deeply explored by Dilthey. Husserl and the phenomenologists and then Heidegger followed him in positing non-Newtonian ideas about time and being. Another notable alternative path in thinking about time and how we perceive reality was taken by Henri Bergson. All of these just mentioned became important for later writers and critics like Proust, Walter Benjamin, Arendt, Adorno and Sartre.
At the same time, the development of deeper understanding of psychology was part of the Zeitgeist. John Dewey presciently said in the 1880’s that psychology would be what unified the apparently (since Kant and the idealists) divergent paths of philosophy and hard science by once again connecting reason with fact. Freud was evidently a materialist who thought the mind was a function of the brain and neuroscience would eventually arrive at a complete picture of how it does what it does. He was content to explore the mind with the analytical tools available to him and his contribution to 20th century thought and art would be hard to overstate.
But it was Nietzsche who touched off a storm with his unique and comprehensive understanding of how minds worked, especially his own. It could be truly said that if the trick of philosophy was to know oneself then Nietzsche was its master. While he didn’t invent nihilism, Nietzsche thought that it was necessary to overthrow old ideas about morality and society and that this would result in enormous cultural spasms before new men would emerge. Revolutionaries all over the world, but especially starting with those who were trying to throw off the yolk of Tsarism in Russia, took this to heart and were inspired to act extremely just as common folk had been by Luther many years before.
Existentialism, while not a system or really even a movement, embraces this ferment and these intellectual trends – the need to de-tox the opiate of the masses, to use Marx and Engels’ term, to explore being and time in new ways, and to live authentically. Contributors could be materialists or anti-materialists, science aficionados or literati, academics or iconoclasts. Some embraced the utilitarian ethics of Bentham and positivism of Comte. Others continued to believe ethics were impossible without a recognition of a spirit or principle that is unchanging.
The problem of freedom and individual accountability was no less important to thinkers across this spectrum and how they dealt with this is important for choices we need to make today if we are to even consider a post-modern framework for ethics. Approaches to this were thrashed out on battlefields of various kinds and not just in salons or classrooms. Neither the depth psychologists nor the political revolutionaries are adequately considered in much writing about existentialism. This is unfortunate and erroneous. It would be especially difficult to understand either Sartre or the late 20th century deconstructionism of Derrida; or the social theories of Foucault or Habermas without making an attempt to tie these threads together.
Action & Reaction–The International Workers’ Revolution and Existentialism
Emma Goldman was first and always a political agitator. A 17 year old Lithuanian Jewish immigrant to the United States in 1886, she loved literature and theater and enjoyed talking and writing about the arts, believing that they nourished souls and provided valuable propaganda (a word which for her work lacked any pejorative connotation). Some of her favorite writers were Emerson, Thoreau, Tolstoy and Ibsen. She was an SJW and militant feminist back when this meant going to jail for it – and she did. That was supposed to silence her – it didn’t work. Radicalized after the Haymarket Affair, Goldman quickly became known for the strength of her oratory, direct action and radical writing. She was arguably the Thomas Paine of her day. ‘Red Emma’ was, more than any other single person the source of reaction to anarchist thought that resulted in the creation of the FBI, then as now a thinly veiled counter-insurgence group for the purpose of suppressing dissent disguised as a (always un-constitutional) federal crime fighting unit that was gradually given extra-legal paramilitary capabilities to combat the oligarchs’ terror du jour.
Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin fought for influence over the International Workingmen’s Association. While one might think this was just a personal power struggle, these two figures had very different ideas about how working people could win against oppression and of the role of centralized government in particular. Though himself a revolutionary who was radicalized in the struggle of 1848, Marx became associated with state socialism and more evolutionary approaches to empowerment of workers which took hold in Germany and spread outward from Northern Europe. Bakunin was the rhetorical figurehead of the anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movements which took root in France, Spain and Italy and was all but extinguished after the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. While well acquainted with Marxist teaching, Goldman was a representative of the anarchist tradition via Bakunin’s disciple, Petr Kropotkin, whom she much admired; as well as being the product of her own experience and thinking on the problematic nature of state power. Individualism was a critical issue for Goldman in sharp contradistinction to Marxist teaching and many of the existentialists who later fell in line with Soviet approved propaganda. While generally supportive of the socialist tenet of abolishing private property, at times she sounds like Ayn Rand. Goldman was aware of the tension between the individual and society but was adamantly opposed to the subjugation of individual freedom. This sets her sharply apart from many subsequent thinkers who were grouped among existentialists and held that individuals essentially don’t exist apart from what the collective allows them to be, do or say. To Goldman and the anarchists this was anathema. To others on the left, especially Bolsheviks and their western apologists down to the present, individualism is synonymous with right-wing reaction and is an arch heresy to be banished or burned. For these, the pivotal anarchist theme of neither ruling nor being ruled is incomprehensible.
The global anarchist movement was largely destroyed and swept down the memory hole after the failure of the anarcho-syndicalist Republic in Spain in the late 1930’s ending with the contest and joint experiment by the fascists and Soviets to control the narrative and shape the future for statist tyranny the world over. Picasso’s Guernica was an eloquent existentialist reaction to fascism and war on canvas that showed what power politics there meant in action. George Orwell was a war correspondent in Spain and wrote what may be his best, though hardly best known, book about it: Homage to Catalonia. He learned firsthand about the way power works and would likely continue to work in the world as long as people stay asleep. He also uncovered what remain to this day unpleasant truths for many on the left and in the Roman Catholic Church about how the Soviet spy service took up common cause with the fascists to destroy the Republic and allow Franco’s Falangistas to prevail. As a Marxist college history professor once said to this writer: comes the revolution, and no matter who wins, they shoot the anarchists first.
Understanding the Mind
Nobel literature prize winner Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf is basically the story of his own angst and working through it in psychotherapy. While American bohemian counter culture embraced Hesse for what to them was proto-psychedelia, he was existentialist in his quest for authenticity and exploration of the mind while also sharing some ideas about spirituality with Carl Jung, whom he knew. Freud instigated the movement toward using drugs that were later banned by reactionary governments and wrote about his experiments with cocaine early in his career. Later psychiatrists (see especially Stanislav Grof) took this idea much further in the application of psychoactive drugs and altered states of consciousness for therapeutic benefit. Freud then wrote a seminal work on dreams that formed the groundwork both for much of what he later explored clinically and what his sometime disciple Jung would explore anthropologically. In his clinical practice, Freud often treated the neuroses of women whose issues with repressed sexuality may have had much to do with the shroud of ignorance laid on by their typical late Victorian era upbringing. At least that’s what feminists like Emma Goldman thought. In any case, Freud turned attention away from the idea that the individual is entirely free to choose based on higher consciousness, or what we usually call reason, and socialized the idea that much if not all human behavior deemed aberrant can best be viewed as a disease state rather than a moral failing. Moreover, he showed that the totems and taboos of culture are fungible and may themselves be pathological. In any case, the work of Freud provided grist for bohemians who wanted license to use chemical amusements; artistic fodder for personal and public explorations of inner space; and techniques that could be used to either liberate people from their neuroses or for manipulation and conditioning of groups in the hands of public relations people (Bernays) and government torturers (see Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon).
The Big Kahuna of existentialists Sartre did not approve of Freud or psychotherapy. He didn’t coin the term ‘psychobabble’ but that sizes up what he thought of it. In his Being and Nothingness, he provides a panegyric for individual freedom within a social context as the basis of an authentic if not necessarily happy life. While Sartre became first a non-person and then a counter-culture hero in post WWII America because of his avowed Marxism and atheism, he was not an orthodox dialectical materialist. This put him at odds with social theorists like Adorno whose program for the destruction of capitalism required training young people in colleges to disdain individualism and individualist culture when that might otherwise not be consistent with the aims of state socialism. Sartre held that conventional morality is mainly or entirely about “bad faith,” or making people deny themselves so they can be controlled. While Sartre’s call to live courageously was welcome and necessary, some of those who followed merely used him to justify barbarism while eliminating his, for them, defects of individualism.
Adorno celebrated those artists like Rimbaud who were outré in self-expression, especially if it involved tweaking the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeoisie. At the same time, one can almost feel the sneer every time he mentions individualists or individualism. One is reminded of Ayn Rand’s character Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead, who joyfully destroyed the minds of weak willed people on behalf of the collective. In order to break them, it is first necessary to convince them that the degradation of human dignity is pre-requisite to being accepted and integrity is impossible.
What Jung did was point the way past the puerile combination of utopian scientistic fantasy, fear of mythic backsliding in the Comtian sense, and scatological celebration of barbarism with denial of individual dignity, will or accountability. Because he did this of course he had to be tarred as an anti-semite and crypto-Nazi reactionary without evidence. Jung’s study of psychological types and archetypes was in one sense homage to Freud. What Jung adds is a fuller way to examine connection points for culture, story and history to both an integrative reason and acceptance of the facts of existence. For a comprehensive working out of what this means see Jordan Peterson’s class lectures on YouTube. (Hurry though, as the censors may decide they are “hate speech” and remove them.)
Existentialism—Prolegomena to Any Future Ethics
Sartre was the archetypical existentialist as far as anyone in the 1960’s or 1970’s was concerned. His work became broadly accessible in English after WWII and it remains highly readable. While ostensibly a Marxist, he was not doctrinaire and did not provide any ethical justification for the universal conscription of workers in the socialist state, nor was he gulled into thinking that such forms of collectivism could claim the moral high ground. He was strongly against any social movement or apology for enslaving some for the entitlement of others, believing instead that individuals needed to act as though they were responsible for everything in their lives – a rather extreme form of stoicism. No arm-chair theorist, he was active in the resistance during WWII. He saw courageous men die to stop totalitarianism and doubtless ordered some to their deaths. He was not foolish enough to think that so-called Western democracies were immune to abuse of power.
In considering the import of existentialism for information ethics in the 21st century, one is confronted by bedrock principles of freedom and authenticity faced by frank appraisal of oneself and the truth of one’s existence. Courage is therefore demanded of the real human, not the quest for pleasure or happiness. Were he alive today, Sartre would be saying emphatically, “Take the damned red pill already and then do what you have to do!” While Sartre understood that people did not exist in a vacuum, he did not make the mistake of confusing society with the government. To manipulate consent of the governed using psychology was and is to universalize a Kafka-esque nightmare. This is exactly what did happen in the Soviet Union before it collapsed under its own weight. Sartre wouldn’t fall for the collectivist big lie any more than Emma Goldman did. We can only hope to see their brand of courage again to deal with the globe spanning surveillance state and its virtue signaling crony capitalist partners.