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Existentialism: A Preface

There is much talk in Paris, in Greenwich Village, even in the center of Manhattan, about existence and existentialism. The existentialists assemble in the Cafe de Flore in Paris. There is a series of books being published on existence by the Librairie Gallimard; a Communist, in an article published in Action in Paris, writes against existential philosophy; Horizon in London has published an article on existentialist drama in France. Already an article by Auden has familiarized the American public with one aspect and with the source of the idea of existence, Kierkegaard.

One day a man, Kierkegaard, was deeply dissatisfied with the ideas of Hegel. Hegel had shown that the truth is the whole, be it in art, in society, in history, and that beyond the particular wholes, there is the absolute whole which contains everything. But Kierkegaard said: “I am no part of a whole, I am not integrated, not included. To put me in this whole you imagine is to negate me. Who am I? I am an intensity of feeling in relation with beings, and particularly with the Divine Being, who excites my desire, my knowledge. I want to be in a kind of self-destroying contact with God, the Absolute Other.” Another idea of Kierkegaard was that the rationalistic scheme of Hegel destroyed possibility, and our actions are only understandable in a world where possibility exists. Individuality as separated from society, from reason, from ethics, and possibility as distinct from reality, were vindicated by Kierkegaard,

So once again “To be or not to be”: that was the question. Let us remark in passing that there were very great men who were existentialists, or rather, let us say with Kierkegaard, existent men without knowing it. We have suggested that Hamlet was an existent, Pascal also. And the nearly unknown French philosopher, Lequier. Perhaps Carlyle too (but let us put Carlyle into the background; people do not like Carlyle very much nowadays; I like him), Melville also. Even Socrates, says Kierkegaard, was an existent man. And we may add the great foe of Socrates, Nietzsche. Let us stop here. For we could show that the bases of the great philosophies, as those of Plato, Descartes, Kant, may be found in existential revelations.

Then comes the second act: for Kierkegaard, existence and God, the transcendent, the Absolute Other, were linked. We see in the philosophy of the German philosopher Jaspers more intellectualized and generalized echoes of the same tendencies which were in Kierkegaard. It is no longer a question of relation to God and to Jesus Christ, but to an obscure background of which we have the feeling, but which we can never catch, except in partial and fugitive moments, so that finally we succumb and are in a certain manner the victims of a kind of shipwreck. But our situation is such that we have to accomplish this pursuit and to assert ourselves in this very shipwreck,

Another German philosopher, Heidegger, cancels God and is sorry for it. But to be sorry is a very existential feeling. We are left alone, derelict, relinquished, not by God who does not exist, but derelict, dropped in se (one could question this). Nevertheless we accomplish a movement of transcendence, not toward God, Who does not exist, but toward the world and toward the future. We cannot speculate on ourselves as being outside the world. If we transcend, we transcend in the world.

We are in the world. This seems quite common sense. But in fact few philosophers had insisted on it. Descartes had discarded at first the reality of the world. Kant had questioned its very idea. Our essence, according to Heidegger, cannot be separated from the world; we are open to the world. Leibnitz had said that monads have no windows. But for Heidegger individuals have no windows because they are always essentially outdoors.

For Heidegger, man is essentially the being who puts into question his own existence. In this sense he is the being who philosophizes because of his very being. And this calling existence into question, which is at the same time what Heidegger names the comprehension of existence, is risking and endangering one’s own being.

This idea of the individual being at stake allows us to go to the second transcendence implied in Heidegger’s philosophy, the transcendence toward the future. We find here again the insistence which we had seen in Kierkegaard on possibility. Man is the being always directing himself toward his own possibilities. He is always in advance of himself, ahead of himself. So we might say in this sense that the time of existence begins with the future. Existence is what has to exist. We might even say that the totality of the world is implied in every true philosophical question at the same time that in these questions the destiny of the individual is at stake. But these possibilities are not abstract ones; they are embedded in particular conditions which have not been chosen by the individual. In such a manner the individual is as well related to the past as to the future. And it is this double relation with the past and with the future which constitutes the present. We see how time defines existence and existence time. And man cannot be completely separated from his fellow men; in our knowledge itself, the presence of other human beings is implied.

But we do not always realize this real existence, and we remain in a superficial way of life imposed on us by our laziness and by social conventions. Man is at first on the superficial level and in order to go to the deeper level he has to pass through some experiences, and Kierkegaard has already insisted on the importance of anxiety as revealing the temptations of possibilities. Heidegger gives a more metaphysical and ontological status to this experience of anguish. The nothingness which is experienced in anguish is not the partial nothingness of possibility, but the utter nothingness of Not Being. According to Heidegger, Not Being is active. But he cannot express this activity except in terms which are themselves negative, and it is for this reason (this passage has caused much scandal among logical positivists and many others) that he says that nothingness, or Not Being, “nothings itself” because he cannot say it is; so he says it does something like “nothinging” itself and every other thing. It is the negative background of Being.

The followers of Heidegger, in particular Levinas and Sartre, have emphasized nausea as revealing this background of Being. But the existent does not have to remain a passive prey to the phenomena of anxiety and nausea. He may triumph over them. He may take upon himself his fate. That is what Heidegger calls the resolute decision. (Kierkegaard called this repetition. Notice how often we find the thought of Kierkegaard behind the thought of Heidegger.)

It is Kierkegaard who has given to the term existence the meaning it has kept in the so-called philosophies of existence which followed. Heidegger, who is so often represented as one of the philosophers of existence, thinks he is not one of them, and prefers to leave the title to his former friend Jaspers. He himself says he is interested essentially in being, and existence is for him only a particular structure of being. There are two other structures: the structure of things which are seen by our eyes, and the structure of things which are used as our instruments. Existence is the structure of the seer and the user. Man alone exists. (I do not know where he places animals.) Notwithstanding Heidegger’s desire not to be essentially a philosopher of existence, the fact remains that in the first part of his great work, the one part we have, he defines particularly the structure of existences. As we have seen, existence is for him care-ridden, intent on itself, making projects and always in the world.

There are at least two important ideas in Heidegger: the idea of existence which he takes from Kierkegaard and the idea of being-in-the-world, which he takes from Husserl, the great philosopher and his master, whom Heidegger, in the early days of Nazism, prevented from entering the university buildings of Freiburg, because Husserl was a Jew. It is the fusion of these two ideas which gives to the philosophy of Heidegger his particular coloring: existence being full of care because it is in the world and the being-in-the world taking the form of dereliction, because Heidegger insists particularly on the isolation of existence and also because he looks on the world from what we might call a formerly religious point of view.

The consequence of these two ideas is that we have to destroy nearly all the common-sense philosophical ideas—I mean particularly essence and substance. My essence is not separated from my existence. Plato was wrong. (And Heidegger knows Plato admirably.) Philosophy will no more be essence-philosophy but existence-philosophy.

We spoke of a“formerly religious point of view.” This may lead us to see one failure of the philosophy of Heidegger. It implies a view of the world which has been destroyed by himself. If he were completely freed from his religious suppositions, Heidegger would not be Heidegger, and he has logically to be freed of them. So if we push Heidegger’s philosophy in the logical direction, we have to do away with some of the most essential feelings which characterize his work. In this sense Nietzsche was certainly a bolder thinker. Midway between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Heidegger is in the world of Nietzsche with the feelings of Kierkegaard, and in the world of Kierkegaard with the feelings of Nietzsche.

We have seen the present characteristics of existentialism. It seems to be linked with feelings of separateness, of dereliction and deep melancholy. Might it not be otherwise? In fact, Jaspers and some French existentialists like Gabriel Marcel insist more on community. Are feelings like ennui or nausea or anxiety so particularly revelatory of the world and why are they entitled to such a privilege? We might also wonder whether the thought of death has such a prevailing importance as Heidegger gives to it, and whether hope as well as the thought of our essential finitude has not to be taken into account. Moreover, some notions seem to have been insufficiently analyzed, like the one of possibility which has such importance as well in Jaspers as in Kierkegaard and Heidegger. (But Sartre says very precise things on it.)

As for the notion of being, we may even question whether the opposition which is drawn by Heidegger between what he calls ontical and what he calls ontological is not, at least in some of his disciples, a kind of artificial manner of distinguishing Heidegger’s philosophy from the other ones. For there are a certain number of tricks which are used with great skill by the disciples of Heidegger. And there is a kind of scholastic aspect to existentialism.

Another weak point in this philosophy is the moral conclusion of Heidegger, this resolute decision which sometimes looks like a conventional ending of an unconventional philosophy. There is a kind of discernment to be made between the different elements of this doctrine. And if the metaphysical ideas seem valid, there may be some doubt about the validity of the ethical conclusion; the more so since the actions, the very existence, of this existential philosopher have not always given the idea of what we would call the real resolute decision. And he fell prey, during some years at least, to Nazism and transferred quite illegitimately to a people, the German people, what he had said about the individual, renewing, with much less logic, the mistake of Hegel. This is not sufficient to condemn his metaphysical assertions, but may lead us to question his judgment and his worth as a moral guide.

We mentioned some great existent men before existentialism. There is here a disturbing question. Is there not some danger that the knowledge of existentialism may kill the very thought of existence it wants to preserve? Here we find the existentialist’s dilemma.

Sometimes I think, sometimes I am, says intellectualist Valéry, and he chooses thinking; others prefer to choose being. But Valéry is, in a very subtle manner sometimes. And Heidegger thinks, also in a highly sophisticated manner.

Then comes the third act. Some young French philosophers, some of the best of them, find in these ideas something new and unaccustomed, and something which is an answer to their own anxiety. There was already in France something which might have been compared with existentialism. But it was in the last years before the war that the influence of Heidegger made itself felt. Let us also acknowledge that one cannot read Heidegger without a kind of drunkenness, that particular drunkenness which German philosophical wines of the best vintage give. Notwithstanding the unreliability of the French translations of Heidegger, there was a real interest in his doctrines which persisted in philosophical and literary circles. It is perhaps too soon to speak of the work of Sartre, of Camus, who has united his belief in the Absurd with a faith in action, of Bataille, who is inspired by his own experience and who, claiming Nietzsche as his master, tries to formulate what he calls an ethics of the summits.

Let us merely give some rules for the distinction between what is existentialism and what is not. If you say—man is in his own world, a world limited by death and experienced in anxiety; he has a comprehension of himself as essentially careful, bent on finitude in the horizon of temporality with its three ecstasies of future, past, present—you have Heideggerian existentialism.

If you say—man is for himself, and this inadequacy produces in him a kind of disgust before the too numerous things in themselves, and a kind of fright before the thing for itself which he is and is not—you will have the Sartrean brand of Heideggerianism, tinged, as you may see, with Hegelianism.

If you say—I am a thinking substance, as Descartes said, or the real beings are ideas, as Plato, or the I accompanies our representations, as Kant said—you are no existentialist.

Now we must at the same time pay attention to the fact that the philosophy of Heidegger is important and has to be studied, but also to the fact that one has to sift very carefully the different, rather heterogeneous elements, which compose this philosophy.

It is always a good thing when minds are excited about high questions. Existentialism teaches us once more what every great philosophy has taught us: that there are views of reality which are not completely reducible to scientific explanations. Naturally, those who are of the contrary opinion will try to explain existentialism scientifically, by economic or historical reasons. But the essence of existentialism is to deny, not the rightfulness of such explanations from their own point of view, but their all-sufficiency.

We become conscious, through Heidegger, of a whole movement, starting from Kierkegaard, with his emphasis on existence, on the one hand, from Husserl on the other, with his indirect insistence on being-in-the-world, meeting sometimes Bergson and Whitehead (who in his own genuine way emphasizes being-in-the-world). We are at the beginning, we are in the beginning, of a new philosophy.