Monday, July 29, 2013

Existentialism and the human condition revisited

To: Paul M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Existentialism and the human condition revisited
Date: 3rd June 2010 11:45

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 24 May, with the revised version of your first essay for the Associate Award, with the revised title, 'Philosophical Therapy: The Human Condition viewed through an Existential lens.'

This is looking promising, although there are a lot of issues which I feel you will only be able to resolve after you have completed your investigations in this area. I will try to give some pointers, as well as suggesting possible essay topics which naturally follow on from this essay. What I suggest you do next is get onto the next topic. You can return to this piece when the time comes to revise your four essays for your portfolio. Unfortunately, I can't help you with that last stage.

Following my critical remarks last time, I can see that you have made a more thoroughgoing attempt to describe the different aspects of 'the human condition'. However, I feel that there is still a lot more to do.

In paragraph two, you say that the human condition 'per se' is basically one of the need/ struggle for survival, 'as a consequence it follows that an individual prioritises threat with an instinct for self preservation, hence human beings develop a basic need for security and order in life to operate'.

Considering that this is an essay located within the broad sphere of therapy, or psychotherapy, that sounds rather strange to my ear. What about sex? Isn't it a rather important fact about the human condition that evolution has provided us with an instinct and need to procreate, and that this comes about through sexual reproduction? What about the fact that human beings go through a very long period of infancy and childhood (compared with other members of the animal kingdom) where they are dependent on a mother's or parent's care? What about the fact that human beings throughout history have exhibited a capacity for aggression and warlike behaviour which far outstrips the mere need for survival?

(To these fundamental aspects of human life Freud controversially connected very basic biological traits such as the fact that we urinate and defecate, and that these biological functions are designed by evolution to be pleasurable -- although arguably this is straying into the area of empirical theorising.)

You go on to develop a case that the fundamental challenge is to confront the 'sense of meaninglessness and alienation' in the face of a world where religion is no longer seen as providing a satisfactory answer (Nietzsche's 'God is dead'). Equally important, I would argue, is the challenge of relationship. It isn't just about 'me and the universe' but about 'I and thou', or 'the self and others'. In Sartre's 'Being and Nothingness' this becomes a major theme. However, Sartre is merely building on work which began with Hegel's famous account of the 'master-slave' relationship in his 'Phenomenology of Mind'.

Then comes the crucial step where you describe how 'They respond by leading a life which is consumed with varying forms of public and private deception... reducing their potential for agency and responsibility...'. In other words, Bad Faith. You immediately go on to connect this with the Cartesian view of the self as a 'fixed and single entity'. This theme returns later in the essay. Exactly how does it come about that taking 'control of one's situation and transcending 'the notion of a fixed self' leads to our living a 'more authentic, autonomous, meaningful and responsible life'?

I can see a connection, if one views the 'fixed self' as a purely material or biological entity obeying laws of cause and effect. But how does Cartesian dualism impact on this? Or, what does Sartre see (in his 'transcendence of the ego') that Descartes missed?

I found the stuff about the Umwelt, Mitwelt, Eigenwelt and Uberwelt confusing. This just sounds like more terminological gobbledygook. Possibly, the problem is that you are trying to cram too much in to your essay. If you are reviewing existential thinkers, then stick to the famous names, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger and try to identify what is most significant about their differing views (e.g. 'theist' versus 'atheist' versions of existentialism, Sartre's pessimism about human relationships, Heidegger's emphasis on the crucial importance of 'being towards death', and so on).

All in all, this is good work which will hopefully serve as a stepping stone to the next topic. I would like to see you tackle head on the question 'What is bad faith?' How is bad faith related to self-deception? What is the difference (or connection) between bad faith and 'inauthenticity'? is the former a variety of the latter? if so, what are the other varieties of inauthenticity? And so on.

All the best,

Geoffrey