Thursday, July 18, 2013

Existentialism and the human condition

To: Paul M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Existentialism and the human condition
Date: 18th May 2010 11:37

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 13 May, with your first essay towards the Associate Award, entitled, 'The Human Condition viewed through an Existential Lens.'

This is potentially an excellent topic -- especially given your interests -- but I don't think that you have done it full justice.

In an essay like this, which talks of 'existentialism' as a general movement rather than expounding on the views of particular existentialist thinkers, there is a great temptation to blur everything together in an attempt to describe 'the' existentialist view.

One of the things you have set out to do is write an introduction to existentialism. The problem with this is that one ends up merely repeating the formulae (like 'existence precedes essence' etc.). Someone who had not encountered existentialism before would find it difficult to work out what existentialist thinkers have contributed to the history of philosophy.

All the standard terms are there, 'being-in-the-world', 'bad faith', 'existential angst', 'authenticity' etc. You've tried to cover all the basic elements -- combining the theories of different thinkers -- but the end result is that it all reads like so much gobbledygook. Try to imagine someone who has never heard of existentialism before. What would they get from this?

However, as I think you have realized, there is a way to approach the challenge: and that is to start with something that we are more or less familiar with, something which poses a problem and a challenge -- the idea of 'the human condition'. What is the human condition? I don't mean, what is your philosophical theory of the human condition but what are the kinds of things that characterize the experience of being a human being in this world? What are the varieties of ways that human beings suffer, as a result of being the kinds of being that we are, in the kind of world we find ourselves?

The traditional Christian view is that man is in a 'fallen' state as a result of Adam and Eve succumbing to temptation in the Garden of Eden. 'Original sin' is a poignant metaphor for the human condition and bears not a little resemblance to concepts such as bad faith. Human beings squander their potential because they are 'human all-too human' (Nietzsche). We are our own worst enemy.

So what I would do would be to spend at least half the essay talking about the human condition, setting things up so that when you turn to the ideas of the existential thinkers, they will seem like a bright searchlight turned on what was confusing and obscure.

With this strategy, you will then be able to introduce existentialist concepts by motivating the reader to search for a solution (which is, e.g. different from, say, Christianity or Spinoza's stoic rationalism). Instead of attempting to describe the whole panoply of existentialist concepts you will be selecting those which bear directly on what you have described in part one.

Also, this will be an opportunity to avoid 'blurring' by distinguishing what different existentialist thinkers say about the same problems. Of course, you will need to be very selective -- the point is to introduce just enough of the history of existentialism to give the reader a sense that this is a movement which has undergone development and change, which is fluid and not a static dogma.

This requires a light touch. This is about conveying an impressionistic sense of how existentialist thinking approaches the human condition, giving the reader insights into why this movement is so important, without getting bogged down in too much nitty gritty.

Paradoxically, to write the kind of essay I am describing requires a deeper understanding of existentialism, because you have to know what to leave out. Less is more.

Another aspect which bears particularly on your own experience would be the role of existentialism in therapy. At the risk of making the essay even harder to write (at least, within the nominal 2500 word limit) I think that you need to give more than a nod in the direction of the practical use of existentialist ideas in a therapeutic context. By doing that you will have tied together the idea that there is such a thing as 'the human condition' and the idea that this is the primary motivation for doing philosophy.

As it stands, the essay would not be acceptable for the Associate. However, I can see that you have done a lot of good work in getting this far -- there is plenty of evidence that you have seriously grappled with the topic and as a result have a deeper grasp of it than when you set out. What I would like you to do now is some serious philosophical thinking about how you are going to write the first part of the essay, as I have described above.

All the best,

Geoffrey