Existentialism -|- Educational Philosophy Theory


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Existentialism has its roots in the irrationalist trend of 19th century philosophy, typified by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. It has assumed the most varied forms and political colouring. There was a religious trend (Marcel, Jaspers, Berdyayev and Buber) and an atheistic trend (Heidigger, Sartre, Camus). But its most common feature is extreme subjectivism, reflected in its preferred vocabulary: its watchwords—"being-in-the-world," "dread," "care," "being towards death," and the like.

It was already anticipated by Edmund Husserl, a German mathematician turned philosopher, whose "phenomenology" was a form of subjective idealism, based on the "individual, personal world, as directly experienced, with the ego at the centre."

For Karl Jaspers, the aim of philosophy was the "revelation of Being." Clearly religious and mystical.

Jean-Paul Sartre spoke of "Being and the threat of Nothingness," "Freedom of Choice," "Duty," and so on.

This expressed a certain mood among section of the intellectuals after the first world war in Germany, and then in France. What it indicates is the profound crisis of liberalism, as a result of "the Great War," and the upheavals which followed in its wake. They saw the problems facing society, but could see no alternative. A sense of impending doom, and a feeling of powerlessness and "Dread" fill these writings, accompanied by an attempt to seek an alternative on an individual basis.

Existentialism represents an irrational reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment and German classical philosophy—a rationalism now glaringly out of place in a world gone mad. The existentialists criticise the latter for dividing the world into subject and object. The unity of subject and object, according to them, is existence. In order to be aware of existence, it is necessary to find oneself in a critical border-line situation, for example, confronted with death. As a result, the world becomes "intimately near" to man. Thus, existence is to be known, not through reason, but through intuition.

A central place in existentialism is occupied by the question of freedom of choice. Freedom is seen as the "free choice" of the individual of one possibility among an infinite number of possibilities. Thus we arrive at an entirely abstract conception of "freedom," conceived of as the polar opposite of necessity.

This boils down to an assertion of voluntarism, that the individual is free to make a choice, irrespective of objective circumstances. This, in turn, implies the "freedom" of the isolated individual from society. It is the "freedom" of a Robinson Crusoe, that is, no freedom at all. In effect, they turn the question of freedom into an abstract ethical problem. Yet, in practice, freedom is a very concrete question. It is not possible for real men and women to become free by ignoring the constraints that hold them in bondage, any more than they can jump off a cliff and ignore the laws of gravity.

With existentialism, we reach the complete dissolution of modern philosophy. Jean-Paul Sartre made an unsuccessful attempt to unite existentialism with Marxism, with predictable results. One cannot unite oil and water. Sartre’s thought cannot be described as a coherent body of philosophical ideas. It is a disorderly mishmash of notions borrowed from different philosophers, particularly Descartes and Hegel. The end result is total incoherence, shot through with a pervading spirit of pessimism and nihilism.

For Sartre, the fundamental philosophical experience is nausea, a feeling of disgust at the absurd and incomprehensible nature of being. Everything is resolved into nothingness. This is a caricature of Hegel, who certainly did not think that the world was incomprehensible. In Sartre’s writings, Hegelian jargon is used in a way that makes even Hegel’s most obscure passages seem models of clarity.

Underlying all this is the feeling of impotence of the isolated intellectual, faced with a hostile and uncomprehending world. The attempt to escape from the wicked world into individualism is summed up in Sartre’s celebrated (or notorious) phrase: "L’enfer, c’est les Autres." ("Hell is other people"). How this outlook could ever be squared with the revolutionary optimism of dialectical materialism it is hard to imagine. But then, no-one could ever accuse Sartre of consistency. It is, of course, to his credit that he espoused progressive causes, like Vietnam and solidarised with the movement of the French workers and students in 1968. But from a philosophical and psychological point of view, the position of Sartre was completely foreign to Marxism.

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