Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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7. Criticisms and prospects
Existentialism has been criticized from a number of different angles. One line of criticism holds that the emphasis on individual freedom and the rejection of absolutes in existentialism tends to undermine ethics; by suggesting that everyday life is ‘absurd’ and by denying the existence of fixed, binding principles for evaluating our actions, existentialists promote an ‘anything-goes’ view of freedom that exacerbates the nihilism already present in contemporary life. Camus’ novel The Stranger (1942b), for example, has come under attack for glorifying immoral ‘gratuitous acts’ as a way of affirming one’s own absolute freedom. In reply, supporters of existentialism have noted that the stance portrayed in the work is not at all typical of existentialist views, and that existentialism’s ideal of freedom and its sense of the need for human solidarity after the ‘death of God’, far from undermining ethics, might provide a very good basis for a moral point of view in the modern world (see Existentialist ethics).
Other critics have tried to show that the basic picture of reality presupposed by existentialism necessarily leads to nihilism. Hans Jonas (1966) argues that existentialism, despite its avowed goal of overcoming Cartesianism, tends to introduce a new kind of dualism with its sharp distinction between humans (who are thought of as absolutely free centres of choice and action), and an inert, meaningless ‘being’ that is on hand for humans to interpret and transform as they please. Not only does this extreme opposition exclude animals from the realm of beings with intrinsic worth, its view of humans as thrown into an indifferent universe seems to give us freedom only at the cost of making nothing really worthy of choice.
This line of criticism is closely connected to the claim, formulated by various postmodern theorists, that existentialism is still trapped within the assumptions of Humanism, a view now supposed to have been discredited. Humanism in this context means the view, central to modern philosophers from Descartes to Kant, that the human subject is immediately present to itself as a centre of thought and action, and that the rest of the universe should be thought of as a collection of things on hand to be represented and manipulated by the subject. Postmodern theorists claim that a number of intellectual developments in the last two centuries have made it impossible to accept this picture of the centrality of the subject. The semiotic theories of Saussure, for example, have shown how language tends to work behind our backs, controlling our capacities for thought and speech, and Freudian theory has shown how unconscious drives and desires lie behind many of our conscious thoughts and actions. Given these developments, it is claimed, we can no longer accept the idea that humans are capable of the sorts of self-transparency and self-determination that seem to be presupposed by existentialists like Sartre (see Postmodernism).
In reply to this objection, one might point out that most existentialists have been very critical of the Cartesian belief in the transparency of consciousness to itself. Such themes as being-in-a-situation, ‘thrownness’, embodiment and mystery show the extent to which many existentialists think of humans as embedded in a wider context they can never totally master or comprehend. Moreover, the existentialist description of humans as temporal beings whose ‘present’ is always mediated by what is projected into the future and retained from the past undermines any Cartesian conception of the immediate presence of self to self in self-awareness. Finally, as Sonia Kruks (1990) argues, postmodern theorists seem to have run up against a wall in their attempts to ‘de-centre the subject’. Having identified the pervasive background structures that influence the thoughts and actions of subjects, these theorists now find it difficult to give an account of the kind of critical thinking they see as central to the postmodern stance. In Kruks’ view, existentialists have much to offer postmodern theory in formulating the conception of a ‘situated subjectivity’ that will fill this gap.
It is not clear what the future holds in store for existentialism understood as a philosophical movement. Many of the ideas that sounded so exciting in Paris in the 1940s now seem terribly old-fashioned. Many of the more viable themes in existentialism have been absorbed into new philosophical movements, especially into hermeneutics with its emphasis on humans as self-interpreting beings (see Hermeneutics). While some existentialist writers have faded from the scene, others have become more and more influential (though not always as existentialists). There has been an explosion of interest in Heidegger and Nietzsche recently, and the works of Kierkegaard, Sartre and Beauvoir are widely discussed.
Whether or not existentialism as such will continue to thrive, it seems that there will always be a place for the style of critique of society and the concern with the concrete realities of life that are central to existentialist thought. As a reactive movement, existentialism challenged the uncritical assumptions of mainstream philosophy as well as the complacency of everyday social existence. In its more positive side, it attempted to counteract the tendency to self-loss in contemporary life by formulating a vision of the kind of coherent, focused way of living that would provide a basis for meaningful action. These certainly seem to be valuable aims, and it is likely that existentialist writers will always have important contributions to make toward realizing them.
Guignon, Charles B.. Criticisms and prospects. Existentialism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/existentialism/v-1/sections/criticisms-and-prospects.
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