Existentialism is Dead

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Reply Sat 22 Nov, 2008 09:14 am
Given the recent (1960s-Present) strands in philosophy I think it is safe to say that the time of Existentialism has waned. While it may still be a useful field of study and one of incredible interest to many philosophers (both lay and academic), trends seem to move away from it and stay distanced from it. The upsurge of philosophers identifying or identified as Existentialist in the early part of the century seem to have been displaced as the rock stars of philosophy, simply giving way for those who operate (to varying degrees) outside of existential frameworks.

My interest is not a debate on whether Existentialism is officially dead (such an argument would be, I fear, fruitless) but rather why it happened. The decline of existential thought could simply be the nature of academic progression (we moved on), the solution to the problems Existentialism struggled with (Sartre really did solve everything with the Critique of Dialectical Reason?), the realization that Existentialism was (ironically) meaningless (much to the happiness of Carnap, I am sure), or simply that people stopped caring about meaning in their lives and their concerns shifted to other matter? Or have I missed the point completely?

Bock Bock.

(For the term 'Existentialist', in the tradition of Walter Kaufmann, it is pointless to try and specify a strict school of Existentialist thought. Rather than limit it myself, feel free to use whatever you feel to be most useful for your argumentation. Existentialism is one of those tricky things that can be arranged in so many ways, which I have seen start as far back as Augustine and fly right into the present.)
 
Theaetetus
 
Reply Sat 22 Nov, 2008 09:32 am
@BlueChicken,
Actually, existentialism can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Plato's cave allegory is a precursor to some existential thinking.

I think existentialism because the condition in Europe that the existential school grew out of was, for the most part, resolved. Liberalism took hold, and the conditions that lead to both World Wars were pretty much resolved.
 
jgweed
 
Reply Sat 22 Nov, 2008 10:01 am
@BlueChicken,
It may not be that Existentialism as such is dead, or even that its place in academe has been surpassed by other trends, but that Existentialism, or some of its major positions, has become the foundation for newer trends. Certainly Nietzsche and Heidegger have rather directly influenced modern phenomenological trends, for example the investigations into what is described as the "life-world" not to mention Derridas, Levinas, or Gadamer.
Much of the current interest in Hermeneuticsis is being done by second- and third-generation "existentialists." On another front, the women's liberation movement continues to draw on the Existentialist arguments propounded by deBeauvoir in her "The Second Sex."

The shift made by the Existentialists from epistemology to ontology as the starting place for philosophical analysis, the emphasis on the individual in situation (being-in-the-world), the questioning of traditional dualisms, and the desire for flexibility in method seem to have infused contemporary thinking.

Since Existentialism was never a coherent movement in philosophy, but rather a group of thinkers with certain "family resemblances" loosely grouped together,then---in that sense of a defined position (neo-Thomism comes to mind)---one should not expect "Existentialism" to endure. I would conclude that many of the current "names" in philosophy do work within an 'Existential' framework, or perspective, as I have described, but have branched off into new areas of interest.
 
Aedes
 
Reply Sun 23 Nov, 2008 12:43 am
@BlueChicken,
I think existentialism has to be viewed in its historical and intellectual context as well.

I see it as sort of bridging the gap between modernism and postmodernism. Postmodernism (in literature) is very closely allied with existentialism -- it's just got more of a sense of humor. The era where existentialism blossomed was shortly after WWII, in an age where the last two generations had fought in world wars, the world was coming to terms with things like the Holocaust and the nuclear bombs, and the Cold War brought an even greater apocalyptic sensibility.

The later existentialists, like Sartre and Camus, are inseparable from this context. They saw modern events as a great crisis in meaning, which is so central to the existential movement. They focused on the absurdity of life, on the horror of realizing life's lack of meaning, and on the individual experience (which was something that early existentialists and their allies, including non-philosophers like Dostoyevsky and Van Gogh and Freud also explored).

I think now, half a century later, their philosophy has become a bit more 'obvious' to us. It's less novel, and we've been beset by a massive cynicism (which is the hallmark of postmodernism). It's likely that many people identify easily with existentialism, because in a way it's actually a very obvious philosophy.
 
jgweed
 
Reply Sun 23 Nov, 2008 07:34 am
@BlueChicken,
One of the reasons philosophy is perennial and always renews itself is that it constantly confronts new situations and world-views. It was Nietzsche who diagnosed in its early stages what became a fundamental change between WWI and the end of WWII in the spiritual climate of much of the world.
This axial period, especially in Europe, saw a rethinking and rejection of many core spiritual values that permeated the Victorian Age. Novelists, poets, painters, composers, philosophers sensed this change and perhaps helped bring it about as they reacted to the horrors they witnessed and participated in, and wondered how such things could happen.
The new perspectives presented by Existentialism, rooted in this "turn," are now almost "obvious" commonplaces because the fundamental shifts in thinking have permeated much of subsequent philosophical thinking which has further developed and expanded by their successors.
In this sense, Existentialism---without the name---seems very much alive even today.
 
Theaetetus
 
Reply Sun 23 Nov, 2008 10:00 am
@BlueChicken,
It seems that "existential" movements seem to arise in moments of historical crisis as Jose Ortega y Gasset suggests.

http://www.philosophyforum.com/forum/philosophy-forums/philosophers/ninteenth-century-philosophers/jos-ortega-y-gasset/2826-historical-crisis.html

I wouldn't be surprised to see an American existentialism arise out of the current crisis it faces. Forced to confront nothingness people will begin to ask similar question. The old ways of live no longer hold as valid, and people must face the crisis one goes through when one's live loses meaning.
 
Theaetetus
 
Reply Sun 23 Nov, 2008 01:49 pm
@BlueChicken,
I found the perfect quote to explain why in is inevitable that there will be an American existential movement in the book Irrational Man by William Barrett. "What the American has not yet become aware of is the shadow that surrounds all human Enlightenment" (273). As the shadows of experience darkens man begins to question his meaning in the world when is formerly enlightened world view no longer seems so enlightened.
 
BlueChicken
 
Reply Sun 23 Nov, 2008 03:22 pm
@Theaetetus,
Theaetetus wrote:
I found the perfect quote to explain why in is inevitable that there will be an American existential movement in the book Irrational Man by William Barrett. "What the American has not yet become aware of is the shadow that surrounds all human Enlightenment" (273). As the shadows of experience darkens man begins to question his meaning in the world when is formerly enlightened world view no longer seems so enlightened.

It seems funny to me, as I interpret this quotation to suggest that current Anglo philosophy has yet to come to terms with the legacy Continental European philosophy started to wise up to 150 years ago. Barrett here seems to be suggesting that the Enlightenment project which became so objectionable through its culmination in Hegel (whom Kierkegaard reacted to) and Schopenhauer (which Nietzsche reacted to) is still limping on in America (and I would suggest Canada, Britain and Australia as well). As much of a Continentalist as I am (doing thesis work on the intersection of Calvin, Kierkegaard and Derrida) I am not sure I am comfortable with the idea that we need existentialists to 'grow up' out of the Enlightenment into a more 'real' stage of philosophy.

I am interested in why Existentialism failed, but to say that it can be predicated as a movement in the future seems almost contradictory to the idea of it as a whole.
 
Theaetetus
 
Reply Sun 23 Nov, 2008 03:37 pm
@BlueChicken,
BlueChicken wrote:
I am not sure I am comfortable with the idea that we need existentialists to 'grow up' out of the Enlightenment into a more 'real' stage of philosophy.

I am interested in why Existentialism failed, but to say that it can be predicated as a movement in the future seems almost contradictory to the idea of it as a whole.


Its not that we need existentialists to grow up out of the Enlightenment, but that eventually the manifestations of limitations to the human condition arise, and similar questions are asked.
 
BlueChicken
 
Reply Sun 23 Nov, 2008 04:13 pm
@Theaetetus,
Theaetetus wrote:
Its not that we need existentialists to grow up out of the Enlightenment, but that eventually the manifestations of limitations to the human condition arise, and similar questions are asked.

But were these questions predictable, not as specific thinkers but as general concerns? What I fear from this line of thought is a Hegelian line of thinking about history, where certain conditions necessarily create certain responses. I agree at the sense it made that Existentialism rose out of a realization of the limitations of Enlightenment project, but I am concerned of the idea that this was a predictable (or necessary) outcome.

Not so much in the past, as we can't say what was necessary but only what happened, but in the future. That existentialism is the natural growth of similar issues being raised (analagous to the late Enlightenment in Europe) seems problematic for me, there are other ways these issues can be resolved: indeed Marx and Freud offered less useful (from my standpoint) but still present solutions to the same problems Existentialism faced (and these three tended to either criticize or join forces to responds to these questions). I don't like to think that Existentialism was the natural growth of "the manifestations of limitations to the human condition aris[ing]", as it seems to violate the very precepts of Existentialism.

But that may be reading a cob of corn into a single kernel.
 
Aedes
 
Reply Sun 23 Nov, 2008 10:24 pm
@BlueChicken,
BlueChicken;35040 wrote:
I am not sure I am comfortable with the idea that we need existentialists to 'grow up' out of the Enlightenment into a more 'real' stage of philosophy.
I'm not sure "need" is the right word. Existentialism was one of several movements that grew out of the shattered remnants of the Enlightenment's topheavy hubris (esp after WWI). So much philosophy in the 20th century is metaphilosophy, with much different schools of inquiry than existed through much of the Enlightenment period. Many of these seem to try and take down prior philosophy as mired in either unprovable things or in imprecise language and logic. Existentialism is less of a rejection of philosophy per se, but it's a rejection of one of philosophy's commonest assumptions -- that life has meaning.

Quote:
I am interested in why Existentialism failed, but to say that it can be predicated as a movement in the future seems almost contradictory to the idea of it as a whole.
I don't think it failed at all, because it basically infected the culture. Or, phrased differently, it became so central to cultural expressions that there was less to academically philosophize about. So many novels, movies, rock lyrics are existential that existentialism has entered more into the world of cultural studies, psychology, and sociology these days and left the world of philosophy.
 
BlueChicken
 
Reply Sun 23 Nov, 2008 10:48 pm
@Aedes,
Aedes wrote:
I'm not sure "need" is the right word. Existentialism was one of several movements that grew out of the shattered remnants of the Enlightenment's topheavy hubris (esp after WWI). So much philosophy in the 20th century is metaphilosophy, with much different schools of inquiry than existed through much of the Enlightenment period. Many of these seem to try and take down prior philosophy as mired in either unprovable things or in imprecise language and logic. Existentialism is less of a rejection of philosophy per se, but it's a rejection of one of philosophy's commonest assumptions -- that life has meaning.

Here I will agree with you. I think we would (for the most part) agree that existentialism arose to address that specific need, as well as several more general areas found lacking in philosophy.

Quote:
I don't think it failed at all, because it basically infected the culture. Or, phrased differently, it became so central to cultural expressions that there was less to academically philosophize about. So many novels, movies, rock lyrics are existential that existentialism has entered more into the world of cultural studies, psychology, and sociology these days and left the world of philosophy.

I suppose I should qualify what I meant by existentialism's death. I was referring to it more as a philosophical movement than as a cultural movement. After Sartre, concerns of life's meaning seemed to disappear (or even within his later work) and take on new characteristics. It seems the common consensus is that these trends were picked up by other discourses: be it philosophical ones (which presume the ideas of exisentialism and incorporate them into other frameworks) or cultural ones (such as those which you suggest, where these questions are re-interpreted in the fields of art, culture and/or the social sciences).

My concern was more that the nature of existential topics seems to have disappeared from the popular light in academic philosophy. The relation of the 'self' to the world seems to be largely replaced by the subject, which is more the result of social forces than a thinking individual. Considerations of meaning within life are no longer considered, which I think Aedes is on the right track with citing the growing cynicism (or even nihilism) many 'postmodernists' seem to embody and represent. However, the topics that existentialists struggled with still capture our interest (Kierkegaard was how I became interested in philosophy) but is not discussed academically any more (or at least as explicitly and on the same scale).

That said, I do see the influence of existentialism in contemporary philosophy. Heidegger is obviously still very much in vogue (Herbert Dreyfus using Being and Time in fascinating ways), although many scholars focus on his later works which are much less friendly to existentialism (Derrida comes to mind). Sartre appears as an uncited influence in Foucault's works, again and again (although this is far from clear). I can't imagine what Feyerabend's theories would look like without Kierkegaard. However, whether directly or indirectly dealing with these influences there seems to be a general absence of attacking the issues Existential philosophers were self-admittedly attempting to tackle. My concern was where these issues had gone in contemporary philosophy; how after being discussed for almost 100 years they suddenly disappeared (deemed solved, impossible or not worth discussing).
 
jgweed
 
Reply Mon 24 Nov, 2008 10:33 am
@BlueChicken,
It may be that our time lacks important philosophers who tackle the "big questions" and that philosophical workers are spending their time analysing smaller parts or working through some of the more specific implications of what we call Existentialism.
 
AWohlfarth
 
Reply Mon 8 Dec, 2008 10:14 pm
@BlueChicken,
Improvement of the mind is never dead however. The study of it may have waned, but those who have an interest still exist, therefore its existence has not vanished. The minds curiosity will never vanish. I do see your point though.
 
BrightNoon
 
Reply Sun 25 Jan, 2009 03:25 am
@AWohlfarth,
Existentialism means many things to many people. The historical movement is dead because its participants are literally dead and the time in which they worked is gone. That said, the principles are very much alive. However, those essentially age old principles (see the wisdom of Silenus) were really first complied clearly by Nietzsche. As far as I'm concerned, we're still waiting for someone to overcome him, as he would say. The existentialists just filled in some detail. That's no insult, I've read them, especially like Camus.
 
Aedes
 
Reply Tue 27 Jan, 2009 09:58 pm
@BrightNoon,
BrightNoon;44659 wrote:
That's no insult, I've read them, especially like Camus.
Camus was a novelist first and philosopher second (in my estimation). Existentialism inhabits the nexus between philosophy and psychology, because the self-defining individual is the basic unit of existentialism. Thus, the greatest works of existentialism are those that show it, rather than expound on it. Camus' short stories in Exile and the Kingdom are phenomenal, as is L'Estranger and La Peste. But he's not the only one. Dostoyevsky was one of the greatest existential novelists, and some others that I could mention were also phenomenal. The rational treatise doesn't seem to do existentialism justice -- but a work of art, even an abstract one, sometimes can.

http://www.pbase.com/drpablo74/image/60757754.jpg
 
Language Games
 
Reply Thu 5 Feb, 2009 05:47 pm
@Aedes,
Existentialism will live whenever a person experiences joy, sadness, pleasure, pain, and attempts to make sense of these things -- which is the same as saying everybody's life is an ongoing existential meltdown.

Existentialism the philosophical movement petered out because Satre took the collective existential insights of history and attempted to systemize them into a pseudo-religion -- like the communism he enjoyed so much -- and then no one bought it, mostly because existentialism doesn't focus on conventional philosophical dilemmas like language and logic, although some proto-Existentialists do contemplate those issues. Satrean existentialism (which is THE existentialism given that he coined it) didn't stay in philosophy because Satrean existentialism doesnt do philosophy-as-such anymore than any other religion.

If Satrean existentialism prevailed in, say, language and logic -- there would be nothing to talk about -- and in metaphysics there would be nothing to talk about except how mistaken metaphysics is. In contrast, modern philosophers love talking about language and logic and metaphysics is fueled by the discoveries of the natural sciences.
 
Elmud
 
Reply Sun 29 Mar, 2009 07:29 pm
@BlueChicken,
BlueChicken wrote:
Given the recent (1960s-Present) strands in philosophy I think it is safe to say that the time of Existentialism has waned. While it may still be a useful field of study and one of incredible interest to many philosophers (both lay and academic), trends seem to move away from it and stay distanced from it. The upsurge of philosophers identifying or identified as Existentialist in the early part of the century seem to have been displaced as the rock stars of philosophy, simply giving way for those who operate (to varying degrees) outside of existential frameworks.

My interest is not a debate on whether Existentialism is officially dead (such an argument would be, I fear, fruitless) but rather why it happened. The decline of existential thought could simply be the nature of academic progression (we moved on), the solution to the problems Existentialism struggled with (Sartre really did solve everything with the Critique of Dialectical Reason?), the realization that Existentialism was (ironically) meaningless (much to the happiness of Carnap, I am sure), or simply that people stopped caring about meaning in their lives and their concerns shifted to other matter? Or have I missed the point completely?

Bock Bock.

(For the term 'Existentialist', in the tradition of Walter Kaufmann, it is pointless to try and specify a strict school of Existentialist thought. Rather than limit it myself, feel free to use whatever you feel to be most useful for your argumentation. Existentialism is one of those tricky things that can be arranged in so many ways, which I have seen start as far back as Augustine and fly right into the present.)
Maybe, through trial and error, we are coming to the realization that we are not entirely capable of creating our own values.
 
rhinogrey
 
Reply Tue 31 Mar, 2009 10:43 pm
@jgweed,
jgweed wrote:
It may be that our time lacks important philosophers who tackle the "big questions" and that philosophical workers are spending their time analysing smaller parts or working through some of the more specific implications of what we call Existentialism.


This to me seems more on the right track than saying, "Existentialism is dead." I think the writings of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, etc. had far too great of an impact on the Western boundaries of thought up until that time, to claim that the movement is dead in the minds of contemporary thinkers. It widened the very possibilities, paved new roads. That isn't just disappearing.

I know that the Existentialist thinking that came out of that time period very much informs the general Western worldview. I think a good indication of this is how much popular appeal Eastern religion and mysticism has gained in the West.
 
HexHammer
 
Reply Sun 5 Apr, 2009 06:00 pm
@BlueChicken,
I think first the philosophy had it blossom when people realized the term "it's my/your lot in life" wasn't so, that one could do whatever he wanted, with education ones choises became more clear.

The philosophy might have vained when peoples goal became simpler, no longer chasing ghosts in what they should have been ie an astronaut or firefighter, no just get ritch ..money > true self.
 
 

 
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