Saturday, 12 November 2011

Existentialism

Intro

In his Will to Power, and Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche diagnosed the modern problem of nihilism. He proposed the Overman as a response to this problem as a general framework of what a new meaning for life would be. But the Overman is not a full response – It is more of an open call for answers. In the twentieth century, the existentialisms of Sartre and Frankl provide attempts to establish new bases for the meaning of life: one a philosophical perspective, the other a psychological one. In this paper, we will describe Nietzsche’s problem of nihilism, explicate Sartre’s and Frankl’s existentialisms, examine how the existentialisms of Sartre and Frankl are responses to Nietzsche’s articulation of nihilism, and decide if either/both are sufficient.

The Problem of Nihilism as Articulated by Nietzsche

Starting from the assumption that God existed, European society built a meaning of life. Christianity posited a heaven and a hell, and propounded values that gave meaning to life; a Christian God that dictated the nature of good and evil. Since science undermines presumption of existence of god, a meaning of life that was based on God had to also be thrown out. That is, if the meaning of life was to be retained at all, then it would need to be for different reasons, on a different basis. If nihilism is the idea that we can't find value in morality that does not lie in God, then science has thrown society into nihilism. The “highest values” of Christianity are at once devaluated: god, Truth, Morality, and Divine Justice. Nietzsche is saying that since it was the concept of God that led to the development of science, then it was us that threw ourselves into nihilism. To Nietzsche, society could respond in one of 2 ways: passively or actively. To respond passively meant to ignore the problem, or give up on life in its wake – it is pessimistic, and hedonistic. Active nihilism referred to viewing this epiphany as a challenge: as an opportunity to find new meaning. He advocated the active form of nihilism.[1]
In particular, he put forth The Overman as an answer to the ultimate meaning in life. He considered the current man a ‘bridge’ between beast and Overman.[2] There are four possible interpretations of what Nietzsche meant by “the Overman” for the meaning of life:

1. The Evolutionary Interpretation
The Overman will become both slave and master moralities. He challenges us to live dangerously[3] as the preparatory men paving the way for the Overman. This is a progressive development of a higher type of man.


2. A Higher Type of Human Being
Man must create this higher form of human being; “synthesize” the positive qualities of both the Noble and Slave moralities[4]. In this interpretation, the Overman is one who knows a highly spiritual happiness, not the escapist happiness of the last man. One that is akin to the happiness of the Noble man as a true embracing of life and reality the way it is. This man embraces asceticism, but only the positive qualities: self-observation, self-discipline, self-restraint over instincts, master of oneself, self-conquering, and intelligent, self-reflecting, self-understanding. In particular, to be like the "Roman Caesar" with Christ's soul - a complete synthesis of positive qualities of Noble and Slave moralities. This is all still ambiguous. Sometimes he says that these are the qualities of the overman; sometimes that this leads to the overman. He also doesn't fully explain what he means by 'spiritual'. He says that the overman is 'spiritual'.


3. A Higher Class/A New Type of Aristocracy
The Overman is a new class/ caste in society,[5] with the ‘Overmen’ at the top because they are suited to be at the top. The mediocre are at the bottom because they do not strive for more. It is important to note that there is ambiguity even in this interpretation with regard to the purpose of the “last man”. In some places he says they're worthless; in others he indicates that they're necessary for the Overman to develop[6].

4. A Higher Type of Man, Not Realized
In this interpretation, man is always “overcoming” himself. The Overman is an ideal as yet unattained, but can be through a constant process of self-transcendence, self-overcoming. He can't say exactly what form the overman takes, but says that if we are going to overcome ourselves, it would involve self-overcoming; otherwise we wallow in the meaningless existence in the face of nihilism. Perhaps he's vague or conflicted about his accounts precisely because he believes that it is up to us to bring it about.


Sartre`s Existentialism

Sartre provided an answer of sorts to Nietzsche’s modern problem of nihilism with his existentialism. It is based on the idea that “existence precedes essence”[7]: we make our own choices/choose our actions, and this defines who we are, our “essence”. This is all embedded in our particular "facticities" - the contingent facts about our existence that we do not choose. The world that we're thrown into constrains and opens possibilities for being. Meaning in life is defined by us in on this basis: we do not ask what the meaning of life is, rather it asks us.[8]
Sartre’s existentialism also provides a description of his morality as an analogy between it and art[9]: there is nothing established about it. Each individual case must be considered. What are brought out by our actions are our values[10]. He say that we, as radically free, self-determining beings, make decisions that express our values, where our values are chosen by us. For Sartre, even not-choosing is a choice so that “what is impossible is to not choose.”[11] Insofar as we are free, self-determining freedom thrown into the world, even if we consider objective values it doesn't always help us. We simply make a decision, and it can be based on something not "rational" - our feelings - because we must decide. This is not to say that morality is something capricious.
For Sartre, the existentialist is opposed to the view that seeks to suppress God “at the least possible expense”[12], and accept a priori the way of life as if God existed. That is, to accept Christian morality a priori in spite of the fact that it was based on a premise that is no longer considered ‘true’: the existence of the Christian God. Sartre wants to say that this doesn't mean that we choose selfishly: when we choose, we affirm the value that contributed to that choice. Values are subjectively chosen, but have universal applicability. For example, when we choose a over b, then we are affirming that value. In so doing, we are implicitly painting a picture of what humanity should be in our minds. In a choice, there is an implicit universal image of humanity that is being affirmed. Because we can only be who we are in an inter-subjective world, and since I find "others" in this collective being, then I should always take others into consideration in the choices that I make in the world. That is, we should ask "What would happen if everyone did so?" Our choices should reflect the idea of "What if everyone did so?" - Would it make sense? This is not to say that there is a script on how to do this.


Frankl`s Existentialism

Meaning in life, for Frankl is something that is determined by the individual: man is responsible for his being[13]. Life may give us ideas, meaning, fulfilment, and purpose, but meaning in life is determined at each moment. You are responsible for creating meaning in your life. His response is at a practical level. To Sartre's point that our life is a life-long project, Frankl also sees this as a constant/always changing life-long project of creating yourself. "at any moment, … man must choose what must be the monument of his existence[14]" Frankl says that we need to recognize that we all make mistakes, and that moving on from them is a healthy response; that this way we stay in control of how we respond to life. This is, to Frankl, an empowering thought. He articulates three ways of discovering meaning:
1. Creating a work or doing a deed[15] to make any struggle to reach your goal worthwhile.
2. Experiencing something or encountering someone
3. The attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering: adopting a tragic optimism

Suffering becomes bearable when we find a meaning for it. He describes this as "maintaining a tragic optimism" in the fact of the “tragic triad” of pain, guilt, and death.[16] We can choose to respond to the tragic triad by:
 Turning suffering around into something positive by finding redemptive qualities from it.
 Deriving from guilt a lesson: the opportunity to change oneself for the better
 Deriving from life's transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action

He sees this as empowering to the individual; as an "aha! experience" in understanding or recognizing the existential vacuum as source of noodynamics[17]. How we choose to perceive a particular situation is like a Gestalt experience: we take responsibility for taking the steps to change the situation. “Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time”[18] is Frankl’s Maxim of Logotherapy. Reflect on your current situation, and shed some insight into a mistake you make now, and make a decision now before we make a bad choice. This is similar to Sartre’s doctrine, in which we have say and create our own lives and well-being where If we recognize opportunities to change ourselves/our lives for the better, then we take responsibility for taking concrete steps to reach that goal, and we create meaning for our lives on that practical level.


Sartre & Frankl: Response to Nietzsche’s Articulation of Modern Nihilism

Nietzsche’s meaning in life is based on his concept of the Overman, and it is an objective ‘super-meaning’ that would apply to everyone. In all four interpretations of it given above, it is found to be either vague or ambiguous. At no point does he unequivocally define the term. The only definitive character that the Overman is given is that he goes beyond ‘good and evil’; that is, his sense of morality is not based on Christian morality. We are even unsure as to whether he means that the Overman is attainable for all humanity (#1 or #2), or a class in society (#3), or an ideal that is sought after (#4). This aside, Nietzsche’s meaning in life is defined as achieving/becoming (depending on your interpretation) the Overman. We know that the Overman ‘goes beyond good and evil’, as just described. Therefore we know that for Nietzsche, part of the meaning in life involves striving to embody a sense of morality that goes beyond good and evil.
Sartre and Frankl want to say that meaning in life is determined only on an individual basis. There is no objective meaning. Both also have a conception of morality that is intertwined with their conceptions of the meaning of life. Both also expound similar views on choice, freedom, self-determination, and responsibility for man:

Choice. The individual has to make the choice[19] at every moment, because what's not possible is not to choose.[20] Man constantly makes a choice among the massive number of potentialities.

Freedom. For both Sartre and Frankl, we are always free to choose how we respond[21]. Back to Sartre, we can't choose our "facticity", our "thrownness" into existence. It defines our potentials, and limits. However, even within our constraints, we have freedom to choose how we respond to life. Sartre's "Neurotic fatalism" is a concept that denies our freedom – This he refers to as "Bad Faith". For example, consider someone who has a bad temper: bad faith is blaming a bad temper on our biological constitution. Sartre says that we still have the ability to choose how we respond. It is a freedom to take a stand against the conditions that you're in.


Self-Determination. For Sartre, man determines himself, as he creates himself. Man is always determining in every moment what his existence will be. This has the consequence that every human being has the ability to change at any instant.[22] Frankl says something like this in his example of Dr. Jay, a satanic figure who chose to become a different person. This is a dramatic example to illustrate his conviction that we choose who we are, and can always choose differently. Man is both potentialities within himself. What he becomes is his decision.[23]

Responsibility. This refers to who and what we are. Without a God, both Frankl and Sartre believe that only we can determine ourselves, and only we can be responsible for who and what we are. For Sartre, who and what we are is our "essence". We create ourselves: our life is our project, and it is our responsibility to create it. "Thus to life he can only respond by being responsible."[24]

Nietzsche said that confronting the problem of nihilism actively means that we have to acknowledge these realities described by Sartre and Frankl. That is, that man is a free, self-determining being that is responsible for all of his actions and choices is a direct consequence of there being no God. This is Nietzsche’s “active nihilism”. Sartre’s and Frankl’s existentialist is a man who dares to "live dangerously", or wind up being a 'last man'. That is, if there were an omnipotent, omniscient being such as the Christian God who was responsible for everything we do, then free will wouldn’t be possible, nor would we be responsible for our actions. (i.e. there is someone else to blame for all of the pain and suffering we experience – God.)

Both of their outlooks regarding meaning in life are individual – they require that each person determine for his/herself a meaning in every moment. In this sense, neither Sartre nor Frankl address Nietzsche’s question of the meaning of life. They both answer the question: why do we do something in particular in a given instant? And Nietzsche wants to know why it is that we live and continue living? In Frankl’s words:

“The super-meaning – This ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man; in logotherapy, we speak in this context of a super-meaning. What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.”[25]

Nietzsche wanted man to find a super-meaning to life. However, if one lives by Sartre’s or Frankl’s interpretations of morality, then one begins to “goes beyond good and evil” and “live dangerously” in Nietzsche’s senses of the words. For example, consider Albert Camus’ Meursault, the protagonist in The Outsider, as an expression of Sartre’s existentialism. His actions and words brought to life those of a free, self-determining being responsible for his actions. Was there ever a better illustration of the empowerment endowed to one who so clearly accepted the truth of there being no God? He accepted life’s challenge, and in being Sartre’s existentialist, for Nietzsche he was able to go “beyond good and evil”. Recall his words to the priest at the end of his life, in jail awaiting executive for committing an act he knew he very well could have not done:

“He seemed so certain of everything, didn’t he? And yet none of his certainties was worth one hair of a woman’s head. He couldn’t even be sure he was alive because he was living like a dead man. I might seem to be empty-handed. But I was sure of myself, sure of everything, surer than he was, sure of my life and sure of the death that was coming to me. Yes, that was all I had. But at least it was a truth which I had hold of just as it had hold of me. I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right. I’d lived in a certain way and I could just as well have lived in a different way. I’d done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done one thing whereas I had done another. So what? It was as if I’d been waiting all along for this very moment and for the early dawn when I’d be justified. Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew very well why.”[26]

In an indirect and unintentional way then, such as Frankl’s paradoxical intention[27] whereby one achieves a particular outcome by not striving for it, through living the life prescribed by Frankl’s and Sartre’s moralities, as illustrated by Camus through Meursault, one finds oneself “paradoxically” (in Frankl’s sense) “becoming” (in Nietzsche’s) the Overman in a combination of the 3rd and 4th interpretation(s) as described above. Well, this works if we, say, assume that “becoming” the Overman would undoubtedly include adopting his sense of morality.

Concluding Words

We looked at the path laid out by Nietzsche for a meaning in life, how it involved a basis in morality and an attitude towards life, and the question that arises from modern nihilism – i.e. what is the meaning of life? We looked at Sartre’s and Frankl’s existentialisms and saw how similar they are, and how they serve as responses to Nietzsche’s question. We found what may not be satisfying – that through Frankl’s paradoxical intention, by living the life of Sartre’s existentialist, one can be characterized as one who ‘goes beyond good and evil’, which happens to be the morality that was prescribed by Nietzsche to be inherent in the Overman. However, I am assuming that in adopting certain characteristics of Nietzsche`s Overman that it necessarily means that one is on track to become the Overman. This isn’t necessarily true. Then again, nor is the fact that the Overman, in all of its vagueness (and/or ambiguity, depending on your interpretation of it) provides the meaning of life. But it is believable. Then again, the question posed was whether Sartre’s and/or Frankl’s existentialisms respond to Nietzsche’s question. And that, I hope, has been answered.

Bibliography

Camus, Albert. 1961. The outsider. Harmondsworth [England]: Penguin Books.
Frankl, Viktor Emil. 1984. Man's search for meaning. Rev. and updated. -- ed. New York: Washington Squares Press.
Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. 1975. Existentialism from dostoevsky to sartre,. rev. and expanded. -- ed. New York: New American Library.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. 1989. On the genealogy of morals, eds. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Walter Arnold Kaufmann. Vintage Books ed. ed. New York: Vintage Books.
———. 1982. The portable nietzsche, ed. Walter Arnold Kaufmann. New York: Penguin Books.
———. 1968. The will to power, eds. Northrop Frye, Walter Arnold Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage Books.

________________________________________
[1]Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.On the genealogy of morals, eds. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Walter Arnold Kaufmann. Vintage Books ed. ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989) Pg. 160

[2] ———. The portable nietzsche, ed. Walter Arnold Kaufmann. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982) Pg 124

[3] ———. The portable nietzsche, ed. Walter Arnold Kaufmann. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982) Pg 124

[4] Walter Arnold Kaufmann, Existentialism from dostoevsky to sartre, (New York: New American Library, 1975) Pg. 463

[5]———. The portable nietzsche, ed. Walter Arnold Kaufmann. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982) Pg 645

[6] ———. The portable nietzsche, ed. Walter Arnold Kaufmann. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982)
Pg. 463-464

[7] Walter Arnold Kaufmann, Existentialism from dostoevsky to sartre, (New York: New American Library, 1975) Pg.
Pg. 353

[8] Walter Arnold Kaufmann, Existentialism from dostoevsky to sartre, (New York: New American Library, 1975) Pg.
363

[9] Walter Arnold Kaufmann, Existentialism from dostoevsky to sartre, (New York: New American Library, 1975) Pg.363-364

[10] Walter Arnold Kaufmann, Existentialism from dostoevsky to sartre, (New York: New American Library, 1975) Pg.354

[11] Walter Arnold Kaufmann, Existentialism from dostoevsky to sartre, (New York: New American Library, 1975) Pg.
363

[12]Walter Arnold Kaufmann, Existentialism from dostoevsky to sartre, (New York: New American Library, 1975) Pg.352

[13] Viktor Frankl. Man's search for meaning. Rev. and updated. -- ed. (New York: Washington Squares Press, 1984)
Pg. 133

[14]Viktor Frankl. Man's search for meaning. Rev. and updated. -- ed. (New York: Washington Squares Press, 1984)
Pg. 131-132

[15]Viktor Frankl. Man's search for meaning. Rev. and updated. -- ed. (New York: Washington Squares Press, 1984) Pg. 97

[16]Viktor Frankl. Man's search for meaning. Rev. and updated. -- ed. (New York: Washington Squares Press, 1984)
Pg. 161

[17]Viktor Frankl. Man's search for meaning. Rev. and updated. -- ed. (New York: Washington Squares Press, 1984)
Pg. 169
[18] Viktor Frankl. Man's search for meaning. Rev. and updated. -- ed. (New York: Washington Squares Press, 1984)
Pg. 131-132

[19] Viktor Frankl. Man's search for meaning. Rev. and updated. -- ed. (New York: Washington Squares Press, 1984)
Pg. 128

[20] Walter Arnold Kaufmann, Existentialism from dostoevsky to sartre, (New York: New American Library, 1975) Pg. 143
[21]Viktor Frankl. Man's search for meaning. Rev. and updated. -- ed. (New York: Washington Squares Press, 1984)
Pg 153

[22] Walter Arnold Kaufmann, Existentialism from dostoevsky to sartre, (New York: New American Library, 1975) Pg.154
[23] Viktor Frankl. Man's search for meaning. Rev. and updated. -- ed. (New York: Washington Squares Press, 1984)
Pg. 157

[24] Walter Arnold Kaufmann, Existentialism from dostoevsky to sartre, (New York: New American Library, 1975) Pg. 131

[25] Viktor Frankl. Man's search for meaning. Rev. and updated. -- ed. (New York: Washington Squares Press, 1984) Pg. 141

[26] Albert Camus. The outsider. (Penguin Books, 1961) Pg. 115

[27] Viktor Frankl. Man's search for meaning. Rev. and updated. -- ed. (New York: Washington Squares Press, 1984) Pg. 150
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