Everyone A Philosopher?


The German philosopher, Johann Fichte, was a strong proponent of 19th century idealism, but wrote this in a letter to a colleague, “We philosophize out of need for our redemption.” Unlike the abstract nature of idealism, this one-liner of his might be taken as an early expression of existentialism. If one can put brackets around the religious sense of redemption, it would seem to make a strong argument that clear, reflective, systemic, critical thinking, that is, philosophy, is the way out of the broken modern cultures that, in the name of progress, are destroying the very system in which we exist. We must redeem ourselves from the modern way of thinking and the workings of the cultural institutions based on our foundational beliefs if we are to preserve that system in such a way as to enable it to create the possibility of flourishing. The way out is not being generated by science, and, to a significant degree, science is responsible for the paradoxical dilemma in which we find ourselves. The more we seek a path to flourishing through science and technology, the further away it becomes.

So, following Fichte, perhaps we can find the way out in philosophy, and, in particular, the utterances of existential philosophers. Existential philosophy grew out of a frustration with the abstract nature of much of philosophy ever since Plato and Aristotle. The abstract nature of science and much mainstream philosophy fails to capture the concreteness and complexity of reality as considered to be the world we can sense and describe. If our descriptions of it are incomplete, then our plans based on that knowledge will always potentially lead to outcomes we did not forecast and frequently do exactly that. The ideas of modernity, principally one that scientific knowledge will inexorably pull humanity forward to some state of perfection, are now stuttering and, in the sense that our health depends on that of the whole earth system, pushing us in the wrong direction.

Existentialism, while focused primarily on human existence, starts with a premise that we must seek to understand the concreteness, not the abstract qualities, of the world in which we act, particularly in which we act intentionally. Intentionality means that we have a consciousness of the passage of time and some kind of understanding about the consequences of our acts. If we are ever to understand what being human is all about, we have to examine the concreteness of existence, not some abstract theory about it. We must bridge the chasm between the working of our minds, our intelligence, and the experience of life itself. This should be the goal of philosophizing. Carrying this to the next obvious step, existential thinking always has a practical or pragmatic quality. Our understanding of human existence comes from questions raised by examining life itself, from both the wonders and the misery that everyone encounters from time to time. And, armed with such understanding, we can live our lives more fully and authentically as human beings, not merely as other living creatures. James Collins writes in The Existentialists, “The only way to pass from everyday, deceitful living to authentic human existence is become aware of man’s proper situation.” (p. 218)

Why existentialism, and not other philosophies? Yesterday I attended a lecture by Eric Chivian who received a Noble Peace Prize in 1985 for his role in co-founding Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in 1980. Chivian, like many others including myself, believes that the deterioration to the natural world is caused by human activities, not as the result of natural variations. As for both the goods and ills of human societies, the ultimate cause is human actions by definition. Given many signs that human cultures are not working as we wish them to, it is clear that, if we intend (there’s that word again) to restore both the natural world and our cultural worlds to healthy, flourishing states, we must look to the human being as the ultimate causal agent. Existentialism, more or less alone among philosophical ways of thinking, deals with the concrete, the situated, the temporal-all those features that express the practical reality of existence-avoiding the abstract, context-free expression of the world that forms the basis for the way we design life in the modern era. If we are to do this, that is, begin to see the world through an existential lens, we will have to give up some of our ideas about how we get to know what that world is all about or at least array that knowledge alongside another body of understanding or maybe even down a rung on the ladder of beliefs.

Truth, the belief that there are foundational facts or beliefs about the world, including the humans that inhabit it, that are universal and appropriate on which to choose what we do, needs to be put into a box reserved for only a particular set of situations that fit the methods used to produce it. Shifts toward accepting existential beliefs will come slowly and with great resistance since such “truths” are the only acceptable, legitimate operands within our modernist structure. Boxing them up will cause much pain, anguish, and avoidance in virtually all societal institutions. But, as I have written, I believe it is imperative to start now to make the effort toward understanding a few foundational beliefs and working with them in everyday life.

I have discussed these existentially based concepts in my books and this blog at quite some length. I will continue to do so. Today I am trying to make the need for such thinking (philosophizing) clearer and compelling, not to go over the key ideas. If we can agree that human action, or in other words, human agency, is responsible for situations in the world we choose or intend to change by design, then we must go directly to the source, that is, understanding what human existence is all about, why we act the way we do. We must stop tinkering further up causal chains. We must go further than all our scientific and analytic philosophical inquires can take us. These inquiries are limited by the methodologies that require abstracting from what is always a constantly changing, complex, concrete world. Only then can we dream about a flourishing world for all life on it. Only then can we act in ways that have the possibility to get us there.