20 November 2012

On Being Oneself, Whoever You Decide That Is

[This was written for a private blog some years ago.]

Esteemed Contemporaries!

As I stood in St. Mary’s earlier today, before the noon mass, I felt a strong desire to write to you all about something I felt was unclear among our group.  The non-problematic nature of what I have to point out is obvious to me, but because we (mercifully) neither agree with each other entirely nor understand each other fully, I can still hope that this will be a chance to edify and enlighten.

My thoughts begin with the point that the Existentialist ethic of authenticity should be rejected.  To me this is obvious, but I know most of us haven’t wandered through the mire of 19th and 20th century germano-frankish philosophy as much as me, so I’ll explain a little.  First there is this philosophical movement called “existentialism”.  Existentialism is a short name for the set of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger, and a few others.  The name presupposes some unifying characteristics to the group.  Nietzsche obviously does not fit well here, since his objections and replies run rather deeper than anyone else’s (despite Heidegger’s pretensions).  What are the general issues which the “existentialists” face, and what is common to their solutions?

First, all of these philosophers are dealing with the collapse of the epistemological project of modernity after Kant.  The project was an attempt to ground our knowledge of the world in pure rational principles, to do away with dependence on tradition and authority and let thought find its path through the guidance of reason alone.  In Kant this project fails, and all of his successors (the romantics) are forced to bring in elements of life which are traditionally excluded from the enlightenment conception of reason in order to revive the hopes of a firmly grounded rationalistic system.  The existentialists are the successors to Kant’s successors, and are, in a sense, two generations after the death of the enlightenment.  The first existentialist is Kierkegaard, who is himself almost a Romantic and who engages primarily with Hegel.  Kierkegaard’s thought is a rebellion against the treatment of subjectivity in Hegel.  Where Hegel dissolves the individual consciousness into a world-historical progression which culminates in Absolute Spirit, Kierkegaard insists that subjectivity cannot be bound by a deterministic dialectic.  Furthermore, subjectivity alwayspreserves hiddenness.  This last point is deeply perplexing to Kierkegaard and forms the crux of his famous discussion of faith in Fear and Trembling.  The “knight of faith” is the man who cannot fully explain himself, for whom there cannot be an exhaustive ideological/systematic treatment.  Kierkegaard aspires to be like this knight, but thinks it (nearly!) impossible.  We might say that this is his great failing both as a philosopher and as a human being: the assumption that genuine human relationships demand transparency and that transparency is possible at all.

What is characteristically “existentialist” about Kierkegaard’s thought is first of all its focus on the individual.  The individual is in crisis, suffers from anxiety.  What is this anxiety, and where does it come from?  Anxiety is the sense that at the base of my identity is something free, something undetermined which I myself must determine.  Anxiety is a sort of fear, but fear not of something in particular, but of that nothing, that lack of determination which lies at the root of my very self.  It is the burrowing “Why?” which can never be satisfied, which will dig down through soil and bedrock until it reaches and hollows out the core, finding there only itself and the empty space surrounding it.  Anxiety is, we might say, the first concept of all existentialist philosophy, and it grows directly out of the sense of rational groundlessness which accompanies the collapse of the Enlightenment epistemological project.

Kierkegaard, Sartre and Heidegger all emphasize the horror which accompanies anxiety, and see addressing this anxiety as (perhaps) the primary problem of human existence.  The old question “What is the meaning of life?”, if we could remember what it asked, would be seen to be an expression of this same anxiety.  The fact that as a culture we treat this question as baffling and answerless indicates that we participate on a large scale, and perhaps unconsciously, in the crisis which Kierkegaard diagnosed a century and a half ago.  If the question of life’s meaning is answerless and even uninteresting, this is a sure sign that we have fallen into to nihilism.

However, the existentialists are unified not only in their identification of the primary problem of human existence (the anxiety, the groundlessness, of our own being), but also offer solutions which share certain general qualities.  The proper solution, all of them agree, is for the individual to exist “authentically”.  Authenticity has a few angles and is fairly easy to explain:

1.  Authenticity is contrasted to inauthenticity, in which the individual avoids the problem of anxiety by losing sight of his individuality through experience or business etc., or borrows an unquestioned solution to life’s questions from an external authority (the masses, the church, etc.)

2.  Authenticity is tied to both the idea of authorship and that of property.  It is the individual’s taking authority of himself, taking control of the self which he “owns”, “owning up” to himself, so to speak.  It is also the individual’s participation in the determination (the authorship) of his identity.  In authentic living, the individual is capable of supplying the meaning fundamental to his existence, merely by fiat.  This aspect of individual self-determination is especially important for Sartre, whereas both Kierkegaard and Heidegger tend to talk about authentic existence as more of an honest coming-to-terms with the self and reaffirming it in the face of anxiety.

Now we approach the point I originally wanted to raise.  In Kierkegaard, authenticity depends on total self-transparency, “the self-relating itself to itself in the relation”.  In Sartre it is the willful affirmation of an idea merely for the sake of freedom.  Both of these are deeply misguided and will do great damage to anyone who pursues them earnestly.  So we want to reject them.  Of course, in rejecting the ethic of authenticity, we also reject the philosophical psychology (psychology in the sense that de Anima is psychology) fundamental to liberal modernity.  The feel-good messages given everywhere to children in our society are:

1.  Be yourself!
2.  You can be whoever you want to be!

The implications of these two messages are terrifying.  The first prioritizes personal experience and the development of the self over every external influence.  It posits a “true self” which everyone is called to uncover in himself and to embrace.  (A genealogy of this principle clearly points toward protestantism and the priority of the individual experience of God over the authority imposed by religious leadership.)  The second principle undermines the first, by suggesting that the development of person is not bound by nature or ability (and therefore not by any “true self”) but only by force of will.  (Here the genealogy points toward the American rags-to-riches mythos and certain Jeffersonian catchphrases.)  Combined they yield the American liberal mindset: my first duty is to myself, and my self is a creation of my will.  Therefore, whatever I desire is legitimate, since desires arise from the self, and if I will it it is good.

We obviously want to reject this, but at the same time, there are certain facts which are difficult to escape.  First, people are in fact different from each other, and we generally agree that difference is not simply a fault.  Human perfection preserves difference and may even magnify it, as each individual reflects some aspect of the perfection of God.  To this extent we endorse the idea of vocation and we acknowledge diversity among the possible valid ends of a human life.  At the same time, we seem to insist on uniformity in both belief and behavior, and it becomes difficult to see to what extent difference is acceptable.  How far can oddity go before it is an offense?  Before it is detrimental to society?  On what basis can we object to difference?  Can we ridicule the exceptional? Is it bad to break with any tradition, to violate any norm?  And if not, which norms can be violated?  Cultural change depends to a large extent on the low level violation of behavioral norms.  In a perfect society, however, it seems that change would be impermissible, and hence that all difference would be wrong.  Is this thinking correct?

I hope it is clear how deeply these questions are related to my (overlong) explanation of anxiety and authenticity.  The matter of moderating external influence and independent self-determination is a pressing one.  It’s also very interesting.  I hope others agree.