Modern European Philosophy 11 – Heidegger
For this lecture, read Heidegger’s Being & Time, pages 41-57.
As we discussed over the past few weeks, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were both forerunners of Heidegger and Existentialism. While Heidegger was centrally influenced by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and he used the term ‘existential’ to describe fundamental forms of experience, it was Sartre who called himself, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger ‘Existentialists’, coining this term as well as ‘Existentialism’ to describe the school of thought that includes all of these thinkers together. While Schopenhauer was pessimistic and skeptical about human claims to knowledge, he did not advocate a courageous leap into the creation of truth for oneself or one’s culture, and so was not included amongst the forerunning Existentialists by Sartre, even though Schopenhauer clearly had an impact on Nietzsche as well as other later philosophers. In addition to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the famed writers Dostoevsky and Kafka are often cited as central precursors of and influences on the Existentialists.
Just as Nietzsche had studied to be a Lutheran minister before turning to philosophy, Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) originally studied to be a Catholic theologian, but after exposure to medieval European Neoplatonism he switched to philosophy and wrote his thesis on the Neoplatonist Duns Scotus. Fun fact: Because Duns Scotus argued that all things are alive, including rocks, he was labeled an idiot, and this is where the term ‘dunce’ comes from (which is oddly not in spell check, perhaps because the term is no longer much in use).
Husserl, the famed phenomenologist, took Heidegger under his wing as his star pupil at the University of Freiburg, and as Husserl’s phenomenology rose to fame and gathered followers Heidegger began to gather fame and followers of his own. Husserl wanted a science of the mind, a radical criticism of all philosophy and psychology up through Kant’s metaphysics and Hegel’s phenomenology. Husserl is famous for the idea of intentionality, that consciousness is always directed toward something or away from something, similar to Fichte’s idea of Das Ich and the dynamic of assertion and resistance.
Husserl studied the various and often subtle ways we are intentional in our world. Husserl kept writing and expanding his work, but rather than develop a new alphabet of thought as he had originally intended his work snowballed out of control and continued to amass until his death. Heidegger picked up Husserl’s work, but merged it with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and took it in what would later be recognized as an Existential direction. Heidegger formed his own insights based on the work of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Husserl, insights which Heidegger himself thought were similar to ancient Chinese Daoism.
Heidegger published his first and central work, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit), in 1927. Unlike the work of Nietzsche, it was immediately popular and sparked intense conversations and debates in the academic community. To this day, many consider Heidegger to be one of the most profound of philosophical geniuses, while others consider him to be a fool and a charlatan. In 2014, the controversy was rekindled by the publication of his notoriously antisemitic Black Notebooks, which we will consider in light of his political involvement with the Nazis after surveying his major philosophical ideas. Needless to say, some have argued that his ideas are independent from his politics, and others that his politics are a result of his ideas.
Heidegger argued in Being and Time that philosophy is a beginning, the way one weighs anchor while setting sail out into the vast ocean. This is similar to Schopenhauer’s ship, bobbing on the stormy sea. For Heidegger, we are thrown into the world, which Heidegger calls ‘thrownness’, and find ourselves in an inhabited world as a ‘there-being’, or ‘Dasein’, a term Heidegger borrows from Hegel just as Sartre would later borrow the term ‘existential’ from Heidegger. For Heidegger, our goal is not the system of absolute knowledge and perspectives as it was for Hegel, but rather we should attain an authentic transparency of ourselves and our experiences, aware of what we are doing and why we do that rather than something else.
Heidegger asks: How do we experience reality before and as we arrange it? What is the ground of being that supports our views and values? We approach the world, each other, and objects either as closed and identified or as mysterious, uncanny and miraculous. For Heidegger, industrialization and technology have disenchanted the world, and so we must question the world and re-enchant it to live authentically, choosing ourselves as Kierkegaard said, in a world of manufactured commodities. Just as Fichte said that our reality is a social construct, and Nietzsche said that we must rise above the herd, Heidegger saw technology as the structure of the herd which holds us back.
Mystery and truth appear only in the cracks of our industrialized reality when things break or go missing. My good friend who got me interested in philosophy my freshman year of college, who was a Heideggerian, used the example of dropping the soap as you take your morning shower. Objects and persons all but disappear until they are out of place or misused, until they are problematic, and then we become conscious of them. Consider a poster on a wall that we stop seeing after awhile, which then becomes new again and leaps out if we call our attention to it. Heidegger argues that we must think about our thinking to uproot our ingrained understandings if we wish to transform them.
Heidegger argues that every revealing is a concealing, that our experience gives us the things we encounter and what they mean to us as it removes other things from sight, using the metaphor of a forest clearing, an open space that is also obscured, revealing what is within while concealing what is outside. For Heidegger, being and beings withdraw from our grasp as we grasp them, similar to Merleau-Ponty’s insight that we only partly perceive things. Time continuously gives us the present as it takes the present from us. Meaning is always historical, always has ‘historicity‘ for Heidegger, situated in its time and place.
One of Hegel’s great contributions to philosophy was looking at thought as a historical process. For Heidegger, being is always bound up with time, and thus his title, Being and Time. Time is the horizon of being. Time gives us all things and then threatens to take them all away as it stretches beyond our sight and beyond death. As time and being are seen and unseen, so there can be no absolutely grounded judgment, interpretation or meaning. Care and life are always as much for oneself as much as for something else that never fully arrives, just as we never reach the horizon.
For Freud, thought is typically denial of our impulses towards sex and violence. For Heidegger, common inauthentic thought is in denial of death. We prefer to think of ourselves, others, our thoughts and our world as fixed, closed and immutable, but unfortunately they are always in motion, open, and will end. Just as Hegel argued that Kant’s closed, fixed categories are dead, closure and exclusion in thought is the way we cope with the fear of death. This is similar to Lacan’s idea of the development of our self-image. We are in a basic state of anxiety towards our world that extends over the horizon just as we are afraid of particular people and objects. The things in front of us distract us from our more basic and fundamental fear of the world. Nietzsche gives Heidegger much of this picture, arguing that we can ignore the void by turning to absolute immutable morality, or we can give up, find no universal meaning in life and embrace nihilism, but rather than either of these we should create our own meaning, though Nietzsche sees this as an individual activity that is corrupted by participation in social movements.
Heidegger agrees that we must make our way from absolute being to nihilism and beyond to understand ourselves as essentially becoming and transformation. Out of the basic state of anxiety spring love, fear, rejoicing, suspicion, and a variety of ways we interact with our world. True freedom is realizing this and gaining self-conscious transparency. We must resist reducing ourselves, our truths and even objects as closed and “ready-to-hand” if we wish to truly live. In his famous essay on technology, Heidegger eyes a packet of soap with a printed label with suspicion, and muses that an old wooden bridge is not unsettling like a timber mill. Consider the difference between chopping down a tree oneself or shopping for plywood at Home Depot. We kill the world and ourselves continuously in the attempt to avoid death, but if we accept death and meaninglessness, we are free to choose how we give our lives meaning. If we realize we are running off into the woods to avoid being lost, we can learn to dwell in the woods comfortably as our home.
For Hegel, to recognize being is non-being is to understand becoming. For Heidegger, to recognize we, our world, and everything and everyone in it is enclosed but remains open and alive is to live authentically. To get what one truly wants, one has to accept and encompass its opposite. For Heidegger, there can be no metaphysics, either Platonic forms of the cosmos or Kantian rules of the mind such as Leibniz’s rules of noncontradiction and sufficient reason. For Heidegger, there can be no complete theory about how theory is possible. This is terrible news for philosophy if it was hoping to be complete, but good news for philosophers who will always have more to do and thus can continue to eat if they can find employment in the first place.
Like Nietzsche, Heidegger argues that things can always be variously interpreted, as can the process of interpretation itself. Heidegger called this hermeneutics, a term which was originally used to refer to the interpretation of religious texts but that Heidegger applies to all interpretation of meaning. Heidegger argues that we cannot fully understand our understandings, nor would we want to. The basic way that we are in the world is only partly articulated by judgement, logic and language, only partly controlled and explicit. Like self-contradiction for Nietzsche, this is both a good and a bad thing, good when it is authentic and accepted, bad when it is inauthentic and dishonest. Our reality is unclear, not fully determined, which is what makes choices meaningful. Only the articulated part of thought, that occupied by our focus of attention, is at issue for us.
Our being, which Heidegger calls Dasein, is open-ended, always at issue for itself. We are constantly projecting ourselves into the future, and interpreting ourselves in terms of the past. Dasein is often thought of as an individual being, but it is in fact any identity an individual takes on, any ‘they’ in which we participate. In the same way that I propose to speak for my left hand, in one way giving it no say in the matter, but in another speaking for it as it, our projected being is social, as are our various forms of identity. To work with a group is to be the group, to assume its identity, while also ambiguously remaining an autonomous individual.
Heidegger also places emphasis on language, as we define ourselves using whatever language we use. Children learn culture and language without the need to fully articulate it as a system of explicit rules. As Hubert Dreyfus rightly points out, Heidegger’s thought is very similar to the later work of Wittgenstein, which we will cover later in the course, as well as American Pragmatism. When we are not fitting together with our culture, we are uneasy even if we do not know an explicit reason we can put into words.
Dreyfus uses the example of standing too close during a conversation, which varies with culture. A professor of mine once said that at conferences, German professors are constantly moving in towards British professors, who are constantly moving away to keep social distance. Neither group needs to be aware of what they are doing to continue this endless dance. If we live in a culture in which women do not wear pants, this literally goes without saying until a woman is seen in pants, which then angers and upsets traditional people who only then articulate the practice with judgement as a rule in language.
Zizek cynically uses the example of actually explaining how one’s day has been after being asked casually by a waiter, when the ‘correct’ reply is to simply say, “Good“, regardless of how good or bad it has been. Unfortunately, we live in a culture in which things are largely ready-at-hand, and quite disposable and replaceable. Heidegger fears this, setting the stage for the Frankfurt School’s fear of the culture industry and commercialism, which they considered to be the new highly evolved form of fascism.
Human being is essentially self-interpretation. We are constantly trying to close and ground our being, give ourselves a limited meaning, but this is inauthentic and ignorant, as we are interpretation and nothing more specific than this. Heidegger refers to inauthentically trying to fix one’s meaning and identity as ‘falling’ and ‘fleeing’. We can foolishly run from our true selves into socially constructed meanings as set and given, or we can take up our being as authentically open-ended. Unlike Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, however, Heidegger allows for this to be social as well as individual and still be authentic. As long as choices are recognized as open and remaining at issue, we can take social as well as individual stands authentically.
We are the others and things we live with. We automatically and unconsciously use the things that are involved in our daily routines, just as we do the social roles we inhabit. We are surrounded by equipment which we use automatically without articulation and individuation. It becomes a part of us, an extension of ourselves, as we use it. Heidegger uses the example of a walking stick, through which we feel the ground. Groups of equipment belong together in systems that, like culture and language, need never be fully understood or articulated. We best use equipment when we are not paying particular attention to it, when we and our world are in sync. It exists for us, but as “unthought”, just outside of focus.
Originally, shamans were often individuals who survived near-death experiences or other ordeals, that caused them to look at the world differently. Great periods in the history of human thought often involve terrible crises and times of trouble. We only pay attention, giving things articulation and individuation, when there are problems that disrupt the flow of our practices. There can be slight problems, total breakdowns, as well as things and people completely missing. The worse the problem, the more long term planning must be involved, the more we are concerned with time. The greater the issues, the farther forward in time we must project ourselves, the larger and longer view that we must take. Heidegger uses the example of a hammer, which one could find is too heavy or light for the job at hand, or missing entirely. Things are not articulated, are not different from other things, unless we are paying attention to them. Heidegger calls the present (such as a rock) and available (such as a hammer) “modes of presencing”, as well as “modes of concern”.
Heidegger argues that the equipment which best allows us to be absorbed into its use while also calling our attention to the situation of its use is the sign. Signs were important for later Structuralist, Poststructuralist and Postmodern thought in France. Heidegger uses the example of a turn signal on an automobile, which seems oddly secondary to road signs, an example Wittgenstein uses around the same time writing in Britain. Signs orient us in a situation, revealing the social situation of their use to us. Later, members of the Frankfurt School such as Adorno and Marcuse consider the more problematic example of mass advertising, which they argue distracts our attention from the present social situation.
Much as Schopenhauer argued that it is conceptualization that individuates the world, creating individuals, Heidegger argues that our world is not articulated, does not consist of individual things, unless we articulate and individuate it with our thinking. Given that there are no absolute vacuums in the universe, no complete exclusive separations outside of our conceptions of exclusive difference, this is surprisingly plausible. When our absorption in the world is disturbed, things become distinguished.
While it appears that our world consists of individual things that are exclusive, whether or not we are paying attention to them, this is only because anything that comes to our attention is then distinguished and individuated, unlike the majority of our experience which lies just outside of our attention but is still part of our experience. Similarly, while we imagine that there is always a particular number of chairs in a classroom, this particular number does not exist for those in the room until there is a concern about them that requires they be counted.
Just as for Hegel reality is both subjective and objective together, a social construction, for Heidegger the world is not dictated by the subject, but neither is the subject dictated by the world. Both are in a symbiotic relationship of mutual affectation. Heidegger argues that we can inauthentically ignore the role of the subject, and believe our world to be simply objective, or we can inauthentically ignore the role of the world, and believe our world to be simply subjective, but if we grasp things authentically we understand that each is empowered to codetermine the other.
Our environment determines us, but we can recreate our environment. While a sign directs us, orienting us in our shared world, we can, individually or socially, ignore or redesign (not “read de sign”), and can reappropriate our equipment and social roles. This recalls the work of the Dada artists, some of the first modern artists, who as Heidegger wrote Being and Time were recontextualizing familiar objects as art, as well as question social roles by making them obscure and obscene.
For Heidegger, knowing is primarily a familiar how, not a given what. Outside of a context of use, structures and measurements are meaningless. Things are meaningful for us only given what we have done and what we are going to do. A hammer is only useful given that it has been located, materials for its use have been gathered, there are hours in the day left, and it is not lunchtime. Similarly, Wittgenstein uses the example of the brake lever of a train cabin, arguing that it is meaningless when detached from its complex situation. Heidegger is adding time to this picture, as our situation is also a temporal situation.
Times are socially coordinated, such that activities have appropriate times as well as appropriate scopes of time which are not simply given in the world, or entirely determined by a culture or an individual, but codetermined by the interaction. I could decide all on my own to use a hammer to build a bookcase, but I will have difficulties if I decide to build it at night over my neighbors’ objections. The possibilities are not entirely enclosed, but relatively disclosed, and we are constantly moving from one situation to another, with different concerns and expectations. We share space and time publicly and privately, without any complete gap between these two. Our concerns conform to and are opposed to the concerns of others, and this determines how we experience space and time.
Heidegger calls this “distancing”, the process by which we are near to that which concerns us and far from that which does not concern us. ‘Near’ and ‘far’ here are super-spatial, not merely concerned with physical distance in space but with the focus of our concern across time, space and the social. We are ‘near’ to “where our mind is”, and far from where it isn’t. Consider that intimacy is called being close to another, or the song title, “I Left my Heart in San Francisco”. Heidegger says that Dasein is essentially “distantial”, becoming whatever it is concerned with, as it is its concerns. We make things present to us regardless of distance in space or length in time. Consider that when we say, ‘humanity’ or ‘science’, we are bringing before ourselves, as ourselves, countless people and things that span continents and millenia. Recall that Merleau-Ponty, who was very influenced by Heidegger along with his friend Sartre, recognized that we use the word ‘grasp’ to signify understanding. Heidegger argues that the ground beneath our feet, which we use but does not concern us, is more distant from us than the friend we wave to from across the street.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1961 CE) is a Phenomenologist influenced by Hegel, Marx, Husserl and Heidegger, and was a member of Sartre’s inner circle along with Simone De Beauvoir and Fanon. Merleau-Ponty’s central work, The Phenomenology of Perception (1945), is an attempt to bring attention to the body as the site of experience, the body-subject, against Descartes’ mind-body dualism. Just as Locke said that it is hard to see the eye as well as understand our capacity to understand, Merleau-Ponty argued that the body is often ignored, even as all phenomena are known to us through our bodily senses, particularly vision, sound and touch. We commune with our senses, and through our senses with others. Our subjectivity is corporeal, as our world is framed by our body.
Just as Locke, Hume and other Empiricists argued that we get our abstract ideas from our experiences in the sensual world, Merleau-Ponty argued that we get our understanding of perspective from our early sensual experience. Perspective is our reality, and any projection of reality outside our perspective is itself projected perspectivally. When we imagine objectivity, we imagine a human-like view that exceeds our own. Our world, and the things that inhabit it, are open ended. The world does not have definite boundaries, nor is there a closed set of things. This does not make the world or the things in it meaningless, but it does leave their meanings open-ended. Heidegger argued that this is what keeps many of us from having the courage to lead meaningful lives.
Merleau-Ponty’s idea of embodied consciousness influenced two famous Berkeley scholars, the feminist philosopher Judith Butler and the cognitive linguist George Lakoff. Butler argues that gender is a performance, acting as a body in a cultural situation. We are how we act, as it is action that gives life and gender meaning. Just as Hume argued that you cannot derive an ought from an is, the fact that I am male does not tell me what I should do as one. Should I wear pants, or a utility kilt? Should I drink fancy beer, or go vegan? My physiology does not determine how I should act, what I should wear, or how I should treat others, either male or female. Thus, when I choose to say, “Yeah, bro!” and high-five people like it is going out of style (I don’t actually do this) I am performing masculinity, what it is to be a man, as I understand it and choose to enact it.
Lakoff argues that across cultures we frame experience in terms of metaphors based on shared human bodily existence. Affection and excitement are warm, indifference and calm are cool. Good is up, while bad is down. Important is big, and insignificant is small. Similarity and intimacy is close, and difference and the unfamiliar are far. Good is fragrant and sweet, and bad is stinky, bitter and sour. Order is clean, and disorder is messy. Easy is light, and difficult is heavy. Concepts and understandings are containers, help is support, time and change are motions, purpose is a destination, knowing is seeing, and understanding is grasping. We find ancient Chinese philosophers and modern day Americans using these same metaphorical conceptions, as general human existence is quite similar regardless of cultural variation.
For Heidegger, we are thrown into a world occupied already by a ‘They’, which we are a part of even as we are opposed to it in our individuality. Consider the expression, “You know what they say”. Like Fichte, Heidegger believes that we can participate in the They authentically, as a true calling and creation of new meaning, but also like Kierkegaard, Heidegger argues that that the They can easily make us inauthentic, presenting us with meanings that we are afraid to question, making us feel bound to conform, enraptured by culture as an open opportunity.
Heidegger argues that Descartes, as well as the solipsist, are aware of and argue for their own isolated existence, for their own self-certainty apart from the They, only when they consider the issue a philosophical problem. Before we do philosophy and consider the self as an abstract individuated conception, the They is just as primordial to our world as our individual selves. In fact, Heidegger goes so far as to say that our world and our own selves are more the They then they are anything else. We are as certain of others as we are of ourselves, and only question the existence of others (like the solipsist) or question the existence of ourselves (like the Buddhist) when we engage in deep philosophical questioning.
Because we are what we do, we and our world are our opportunities, conditioned by our culture, and these can be lived as an open question or a closed fixture. The fact that much of our experience is unthought is both a blessing and a curse. While we would not want to continuously rethink everything, the unthought conceals itself as unthought, and so we may not get around to rethinking it. Similarly, the fact that we are a part of the They is both a blessing and a curse, as the They is central to our experience.
While our social world gives us all of our opportunities, including countless pieces of equipment that are designed for anyone to use and social roles that many can enact, we might be afraid to question our relationship to the They, as if via distancing we question the They too much, we feel that we have lost our ground, the bedrock of all meaning. However, if we look at things as open and symbiotic, we realize that neither the They nor our own selves can give complete grounding to any meaning. Just as Nietzsche argued, if we face this courageously, this is the greatest opportunity for the creation and recreation of meaning.
Heidegger says that there are various moods or attunements by which we experience the world. Moods can be individual or social, the mood of a classroom, a culture, or an age. Consider German pessimism, and how it affected popular culture and intellectual thought for a certain culture at a particular historical period. In his later thought, Heidegger claimed that the ancient Greeks experienced the world primarily as wonder, that modern society experiences the world primarily as anxiety, and that Germans should seek to recreate the mood of the ancient Greeks for themselves, to re-enchant a world enclosed by technology and information. Consider the hippies in the wake of the Vietnam war. Moods determine how things are for us, determine our relationship to them and what opportunities they present us with. Like Nietzsche, Heidegger is critical of the idea that we can be objective and escape our moods, and both argue that a great scientist should be attuned to the mood of discovery and expectation of new opportunity.
Heidegger does not give a complete catalog of moods, but he does distinguish fear from anxiety. We fear particular things and flee from them, but anxiety has no object. We experience anxiety when we do not know what to do, when our situation breaks down and opportunities evaporate. Consider that if a child is kidnapped, the world of the parent, with all of its opportunities, evaporates and one is left in anxiety with no opportunities to turn away from it.
Heidegger argues that in anxiety we face the total groundlessness of our world and all possible meaning. Just like Nietzsche, who argued we must have the courage to face the void and then create for ourselves, Heidegger argues that we can run from anxiety by finding something to fear, or we can face it, learning to transform it into excitement, a fearless calm that is ready for gaining or losing any particular opportunity. Many scholars have compared this to Buddhist enlightenment, while many others have attempted to draw distinctions. It is known that Heidegger had a copy of the Dao De Jing in his personal library, quoted Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher, to a gathering after lecturing on Being-with-others (Mitsein) and wrote passages that are similar to or lifted from Daoist texts.
The joy that results from this acceptance is the ability to appreciate the world as open and groundless just as it is learning to dwell in a world that is endlessly questionable. The earth is not grounded, but floating in space. One is able to see more opportunity for growth and overturning than before, which is why philosophy should not grounded in metaphysics, science should not be grounded in fact, and both should be partly grounded as open-ended theory. In every situation there are unique opportunities that have never been present before. In his later work, Heidegger sought how this could be greater achieved for a culture, as he hoped that the modern Germans would return to the ancient Greek mood of awe. Unfortunately, ancient Germanic culture was largely obliterated by the Romans, or Heidegger might have well wondered how to return to the mood of the ancient Germans.
The Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s was the time when Heidegger did his critical writing and gained fame and position, a time when many feared the fall of Western European civilization. Heidegger, like Rousseau and Nietzsche, was an anti-modernist anti-technology romantic who spoke of Greece as a more glorious and meaningful time. Like Fichte, a German nationalist and antisemite, Heidegger idealized the simplicity of the German common Volk. For a period of seven years, from 1931 to 1938, Heidegger was a member and supporter of the fascist Nazi party as it rose to power and took authoritarian control of Germany and Austria. Though he eventually came to doubt the party, spoke critically of its development and was put under surveillance by the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police), he enthusiastically embraced their rise and seizure of power, spoke at propaganda rallies in several cities, and openly spoke of the Nazis as a rebirth of Western civilization.
How is it that he believed the Nazis, a fascist regime enthusiastic about racism, censorship, and brutality were a magnificent chance for questioning, renewal and transformation? Heidegger told the Allied Denazification committee that he had hoped the Nazis would drop the racism eventually. Heidegger had, in the early 30s, been having an affair with a Jewish student named Hannah Arendt, who went on to become a major political philosopher and supporter of Heidegger. Sadly, while Arendt stood up for Heidegger, arguing that his philosophy did not lead to fascism or antisemitism, the recent publication of the Black Notebooks, which contain antisemitic passages, have called all of this back into question. After writing Being and Time, Heidegger’s thinking grew progressively unhinged as he supported the Nazi movement.
Arendt became famous, for some infamous, for her idea of the banality of evil. Watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Arendt argued that the terrible atrocities of modern times, such as the industrialized genocide at Auschwitz, was carried out not by demons or monsters, but bureaucrats and accountants. Ironically, the trial is an excellent example of what Heidegger stood against, being an unquestioning cog in a machine, while also being symbolic of the brutality of the Nazi regime Heidegger supported. As for myself, I always admired the anti-racism of Nietzsche and found the affinity Heidegger had for Germans and Greeks disturbing. Thankfully, another thinker, this time French, came along who loved Heidegger’s thought but hated the racism of both the Germans and French.
Jean Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980), pronounced, ‘Sart’, though the British pronounce it ‘Sar-truh’, who coined the term ‘Existentialism’, is often known better as an author of novels and plays than as a philosopher in Britain and America. This is in part political. With Stalin’s brutal dictatorship in Russia, many European intellectuals had to choose whether to continue to be Marxists or to abandon Communism all together, often remaining socialists, but identifying as ‘post-Marxists’ who no longer have faith in the entirely planned economy of Communism.
Albert Camus (1913 – 1960), a friend of Sartre, author of The Stranger and The Rebel, chose to abandon Marxism, while Sartre decided to continue to identify with Marxism and Communism, continuing to believe that violent revolution was unfortunately necessary and in the interests of the common people. Camus was often called an Existentialist, but he rejected the label and called himself an absurdist, like the Dada and Surrealist artists. In his novel The Stranger, his most famous work, a man is put on trial for killing an Arab teenager who tried to stab him. The judge and jury are not vindictive, as the Arab is a stranger to their culture, but then when it is revealed that the man never truly loved his mother, who was distant and cold to him, and that he did not really feel anything when she died, they turn against him and give him a harsh sentence, as he is now the stranger. This fits nicely with the way that Sartre turned the thinking of Heidegger about inauthenticity and technology towards social roles and racism.
Sartre saw his own philosophy as an extension of the work of Heidegger. In response to Heidegger’s Being and Time, Sartre wrote his Being and Nothingness. In it, he argues like Heidegger that the basic condition of humanity is anxiety, inauthentically interpreted as fear of particulars in the face of the indefinite unknown, and that much of the time we avoid this deeper fear by trying to keep what we like and avoid what we hate. In the process, we become ignorant of ourselves, of the world, and of our relationships with our fellow human beings. However, while Heidegger stressed our involvement and entanglement with the world, Sartre, following Kierkegaard, stressed our alienation and isolation in a world that offers no solid answers, leading many to consider Existentialism equivalent to nihilism.
Sartre, as a Heideggerian, argues that there is a consistent way that we inauthentically try to avoid the dynamic life of our relationships with others, both those with whom we are intimate (family, friends, partners) and those whom we pass on the street or encounter in a shop. Sartre uses his famous example of the cafe waiter to illustrate. Sartre did much of his writing in the cafes of Paris, and he describes the scene as if he is witnessing it firsthand. The waiter in a cafe plays his role, over-emphasizing the rigidity and seriousness of the gestures, the bows, the distribution and collecting of menus, the seriousness with which orders are taken, to define himself as a waiter, filling his role. We and he come to see him as a waiter and not as a human being.
The waiter becomes a robot, and his individuality disappears, both for our and his comfort. We find it easier to interact with a role than with the actor as a person, and the actor finds it easier to lose themselves in the role than to try to retain individuality while serving in their position. Recall Zizek’s earlier example, which seems lifted straight from Sartre. For Sartre, it becomes easy for us to lose sight of the situation as a whole, that this is not a waiter in essence but a human being playing the role of a waiter. While it would be tiresome to say, “Excuse me, authentic human individual playing the temporary role of a waiter, can I have another espresso?”, our substitution of the word ‘waiter’ for the individual does violence to our awareness of the situation.
Sartre wrote Antisemitism and Jew in 1944, as Paris was liberated from the Nazis. Like Nietzsche, Sartre argues that racism, that which the Nazis had for Jews as well as that which the French had and have for North African Arabs and native Africans, is a similar violent inauthentic effort to box up the other rather than deal with the complexity of our fellow human beings. Camus, Sartre’s former friend, was white and French but raised in Algiers, North Africa, and witnessed this racism firsthand, which is why it is central to the Stranger.
In his play No Exit, Sartre’s main character famously says, “Hell is other people”. We are constantly faced with others who do and do not know themselves as we do and do not know ourselves. Like the horizon of time for Heidegger, the ‘Other’ threatens to give us new strange meaning while taking our meaning away. To face this authentically is to have a good and positive faith in life and the creation of meaning. To have what Sartre calls “bad faith” is to trust that meanings are closed and dead, that the waiter is nothing more to oneself than a waiter, that the Jew, Arab or African is nothing more to oneself or one’s nation than simply ‘Other’ with no relation.
Sartre, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, believed that art can liberate us from the common human condition, however most art is inauthentic. Much literature reinforces our prejudices and ideas, giving us a shallow and false substitute for meaning in an increasingly mechanized and commodified world. Sartre sought to write and entertain in ways that opened up audiences to examine themselves, their world, and each other with new possibilities of meaning and activity. This is as true of the individual, who could come to identify with the waiter as a friend, as it is of society, which could come to identify with the marginalized and oppressed. Rather than hold up barriers between self and other, we must, as Hegel argues, seek resolution of contradictions not merely to gain the powers of reason, but to be truly alive. This is why Sartre joined Foucault in the streets of Paris in the sixties, to change what the Frankfurt School called the Establishment.
Sartre’s circle of fellow Existentialists included Merleau-Ponty, whom we have already discussed, as well as Simone De Beauvoir and Franz Fanon. Simone De Beauvoir (1908 – 1986) was a novelist and philosopher who had a central impact on the second wave of feminism that rose in the 50s and 60s. She studied mathematics and philosophy, writing her thesis on Leibniz. She began teaching at the same school as Merleau-Ponty, and then took the top test for philosophy in France, placing second just after Sartre. The two became close, and Sartre asked her to marry him, but instead the two shared a lifelong open relationship, never sharing a house or having children. Some have argued that Sartre took many of his best ideas from discussions with her, presenting them as his own. Today, the two are buried next to each other.
De Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in France in 1949, arguing that women had been marginalized as the mysterious yet inferior Hegelian ‘Other’, and that, just like in marginalization of ethnic groups and the poor, women were cast as irrational and so their voices and problems went unheard and disregarded. Famously arguing that one is not born a woman but becomes one, she argued as an Existentialist that women must recreate their identity, choosing themselves as individuals as Kierkegaard would have it. For this, she is known as the founder of Existential Feminism, or Feminist Existentialism, both terms in use. Judith Butler, one of the most famous feminist philosophers today, similarly argues that gender is a performance.
Franz Fanon (1925 – 1961) began his career in psychiatry and became a revolutionary whose writings are a central source for Postcolonialism, sometimes called Neocolonialism. While Colonialism is the term for Western Europeans creating empires out of colonies and islands far away from their homelands, today we live in a world that is legally decolonized but remains largely in colonial form. Fanon was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, a French colony. Though middle class, he witnessed the racist brutality of the French military toward the African population who were descended from slaves brought by the French to Martinique to work on plantations. Fanon went to France and studied psychology and medicine, becoming a doctor and psychiatrist. He also studied philosophy, and attended lectures by Merleau-Ponty. Later, he ran a hospital in Algiers, applied experimental methods in anti-racist psychiatry, and supported the Algerian rebels against French colonialism.
In Fanon’s Damned of the Earth, which was published in 1961 just before his death, Fanon argued that colonialism had taught oppressed people to interiorize racism such that they considered themselves bad and ugly and thus became self-destructive and violent against their fellow oppressed people. Fanon, in accord with the Existentialism of Nietzsche and Sartre, saw racism as a form of lying to oneself to avoid the endless transformation of our existence and the questioning gaze of the Other. The black body and mind is devalued to affirm and celebrate the West, white culture and achievements including colonial control of the globe. His writings have been an inspiration to many anti-racist and anti-establishment groups, including the Black Panthers of Oakland.