Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Presuppositions of Existentialism?

Perhaps I am not familiar enough with the school, but it seems to me that there may be an underlying presupposition to existentialist thought that I would like to examine. Why is the individual more important than the collective? Why is it important that we are free? Are we so sure that meaning must be created and not found? It seems that some people may, in their eagerness to rid themselves of Hegel and his System, swung to the opposite extreme and not considered the reasons for the assumptions that they make. Then again, perhaps I am simply missing an obvious point, or I have yet to come across it. I would appreciate any clarification.

I do, as a matter of fact, think that the individual is more important than the government, or the state, or most collective groups, because it is my belief that the individual will exist forever, and to the life of a single soul the history of states is a passing dream, but I would not be so quick to discount all collective interests. For me, the Christian church would be an instance in which sometimes (and perhaps many times) the interests or desires of an individual should be subjugated to that of the collective. Personal autonomy may be a good thing, but it is not the only thing, and our freedom is not for me our highest good.

But again, I have an extremely limited knowledge of existentialist thought, and would appreciate correction.


  1. I don't know enough about existentialist thought to comment on it as a whole, but I agree certainly Kierkegaard reads that way.

    I also question the apparent superiority of the individual over the collective. At the very least, I'm skeptical of the absolute, as Kierkegaard presents it, trumping the ethical or universal.

    This may be my pragmatic leanings coming out but...I naturally wonder: even if the absolute in some sense grounds or structures the universal and the singular, why should that matter to me; what claim does it have over me that trumps the universal? Barring fear of eternal punishment as opposed to temporary bodily injury, imprisonment, torture or death due to disobeying the absolute (God) I don't see why I ought to set aside the the universal, especially if not so pleasant things are going to result from my decision to do so (i.e. kill my son.) After all, as we conceded in class, the universal--while restricting us--sometimes makes our lives a great deal easier (I'm thinking of the universal here in the general sense of ethics, science, logic, community, and language, not some specific enlightenment view on these things that's flawed). Kierkegaard might respond "of course you can't justify faith...that is the realm of reason and thus the universal; faith's binding power over us resides elsewhere."

    To which my response is "So What? Why care what the absolute has to say when contradicts our better judgment or ethical worldview?" At the very least, I think that question should have given Abraham room to doubt--which strikes me as the most genuine reaction until shown otherwise-- instead of going off of faith and bracketing the ethical. I certainly have never experienced any feeling of singular-absolute relational faith in the way Kierkegaard depicts it.

    Your other question: "why is it so important than we are free?" also jumps out at me. The most obvious answer is that we base our practices of holding people morally responsible or accountable for their choices, because we consider them free and if we found out they were not free...then our judgments about them would be radically different. However, if freedom here means some kind of robust sense of could have done otherwise or libertarian free will, I'm not entirely sold on that connection.

  2. I agree with Austin's skepticism of the idea of the individual as necessarily superior to the collective, especially when drastic individual action results in such horrible ends as the murder of one's son. Our very definitions of truth, right and wrong, and reason rest on the idea of a universal order. If the individual is superior to the collective, then all these ideas of right and wrong and reason loose their significance. Thus, the idea of a collective, so to speak, holds our worlds together. Without universal ideas, I don't think our lives would make much sense, as reason and sense necessitate universal ideas, universal order. In this vein, I feel that often times the universal is vastly more important than the singular. Again, the universal is what gives our lives greater meaning.

  3. First of all I think it is kind of funny that you ask "Why is it so important that we are free?", when you last name is Freeman.
    That aside though I would like to talk about the question you made before, why is the individual more important than the collective. I want to ask why people should care about the collective more than themselves. I don't get to feel the happiness of the collective. Say I donate all my possessions to charity, I don't somehow feel the happiness of the people I helped. I may not feel guilty after donating my possessions but that is really the only relief I truly get from helping out the collective.

    There really isn't such a thing as a collective mind thoughts and feelings aren't exactly shared through multiple people. I can't really know for sure what others are thinking and feeling. I can only know what I am thinking and feeling. I think the reason that the individual is valued so highly in existentialism is because we can't really know other people like we know ourselves. I can't really tap into your mind while i am typing this and know every thought you have and come up with answers to life's questions. I think existentialism tries to argue that you can't treat people exactly the same they are too different. They try to argue that there isn't really an equation that defines people in relation to others. Because of this they like to look inward.

  4. You know, I agree with most of what Kierkegaard says, but I spoke with Dr. Larry Lacy, a Rhodes philosophy professor emeritus who is very familiar with Kierkegaard, and if I recall correctly he said that it is not so much that the universal is unrelated or inferior to the absolute, but that in some instances the specific nature of the ethical can be trumped by a higher authority than itself.

    We may not know the reasons (if you believe there are any) why God formulates the moral order as He does, but sometimes He can make exceptions or exmeptions (not violations) where we do not see them.

    While I would propose a more fundamental relationship between God and the ethical (in the sense of the moral law), my fear that Kierkegaard completely sidesteps the concept of God's goodness has been partially assuaged.


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