Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 21 October 2007

Existentialism: the unconscious philosophy

My contention is that existentialism is the unconscious philosophy of secular Western society, and the following dissertation is my attempt to support that contention. If you tell people that you’re an existentialist they make a number of assumptions. The first assumption is that you are a follower of Jean Paul Sartre, and the second assumption is that you’re an atheist. (Personally, I was more influenced by Camus). But existential ‘themes’ can be found in the strangest of places: the stoic philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome; Confucian commentary in the I Ching; and the ruminations of humanist psychologists like Carl Rogers. Many philosophers have also commented on similarities between some aspects of Buddhism and existentialism.

So what do I mean by existentialism? Perhaps we should start with Sartre. Essentially, existentialism argues that you are personally responsible for who you are: morally, socially, politically and religiously; you create your own identity. Sartre put it differently, but the message is the same: you ‘create your own essence’ and you make your life a ‘project’. By essence, he was almost certainly referring to Descartes, who talked about ‘essence’ as something intrinsic; what some would call the soul. (I provide a different, one might say, existentialist, concept of ‘soul’ in my first posting on Self.)

Sartre himself acknowledges that ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, the title of one of his most famous essays, and, by so doing, identifies himself with the earlier humanists in Western Philosophy. These were heretics of their time, who dared to posit that ‘man’ is responsible for his own destiny: materialistically, morally and spiritually. Sartre famously stated in that essay that ‘man is condemned to be free’, meaning, in essence, that we have to take responsibility for whom we become.

It’s only in the 20th Century, and only in Western society, that we have come to accept that almost anyone can achieve their dreams and ambitions. Previously, and in many other cultures (though not all), one’s ambitions and aspirations were limited by birth and demography, not to mention sex. To some extent this is still true, and certainly true in a global sense, but at least people are aware of inequality and the long term harm it causes. An existential philosophy acknowledges that everyone should ‘ideally’ be able to create their own persona. But Sartre’s specific contribution was to emphasise that individuals are responsible for their own moral actions, and have no recourse to religion, cultural or metaphysical origins. This was a direct response to what happened in WWII, and I discuss this specifically elsewhere in my posting on Evil (Oct.07). But returning to the topic at hand, Sartre argued, significantly, that one can’t offload one’s responsibility, or society’s collective responsibility, to a religious entity such as God or the Devil.

I think this had direct consequences for the post war generation. There was a worldwide cultural revolution in 1960s Western society, that effectively questioned the role of the Church, the role of God and the relationship between the individual and the State. To many people, conservatives in particular, this created a rupture in society that we are still paying for. To quote Cardinal George Pell (Archbishop of Sydney), quoted in turn by journalist, Christopher Pearson (as recently as January this year) ‘Times have changed and many are troubled by the consequences of the revolutions of the 1960s.’ Reading between the lines, I conclude that Pell resents the rise of feminism, the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the loss of the virtue called virginity, and the recognition that homosexuals and lesbians deserve the right of respect in all avenues of society. Personally, I see all these as positives. Not surprisingly, all of these are sexually related, and the Church, historically, had thought it fit to govern all our sexual activities through the application of guilt, fear and the wrath of God.

Existentialism changed all that, in that we became unconscious existentialists: we came to the realisation that, through education, we could make our own moral decisions and become the person we were meant to be rather than the one dictated by the mores of a religious dominated society.

Pell and his supporters, would point out the negative consequences of this revolution: the rise in drug abuse, the breakdown of marriages, the pursuit of material gain over spiritual solace. And I would agree that these are not issues to be ignored, but the positive consequences are that we live our lives more honestly, and are encouraged not to live a lie, which was the most damaging aspect of the pre-existentialist revolution. People living in marriages that destroyed their souls, transsexuals unable to live with the identity they were born with, young women forced to carry through pregnancies that could have been avoided. These led to neuroses on a large scale. I'm not saying that all neuroses inherent in our society have been eliminated, but I see no advantage in turning back the clock with the inevitable consequence of creating neuroses for the future.

Does this make me irreligious or an atheist? No, it doesn’t, but that’s another discussion for another time. Most people don’t know what existentialism is, yet most people, living a secular life in a Western society, follow an existential philosophy whether they are theists or atheists. I call it the unconscious philosophy because most people believe they create their own destiny, their own identity and their own morality, and, in principle, that indicates a psychologically healthy state of mind.

The corollary to this is that self-deception is our greatest weakness, which, in extremis, can lead to avoiding responsibility for who one really is. As Hugh Mackay points out in his excellent book on moral philosophy, Right & Wrong (subtitled, how to decide for yourself), 'The most damaging lies are those we tell ourselves'. In fact, he devotes an entire section to this topic, with that quote as his heading.

Postscript: the consequences of self-deception are elaborated upon in a later post, Human Nature (Nov.07), and again in a post on Trust (April 08).

You may also want to read my views on God, theism, atheism (Aug.07)

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