Whatever one does, one cannot think outside of philosophy, keeping silent, turning one’s back on it, sidestepping it: this is still philosophizing. But one can reject this or that definition of philosophy. One can refuse to want to be a professional philosopher. – Benjamin Fondane
Writing in her memoir Force of Circumstance, Beauvoir recalled her and Sartre’s initial hostility to being labelled “existentialists.” To paraphrase, Beauvoir found the category of existentialism overly philosophical, Sartre insufficiently so. Beauvoir’s principal objection was that her fiction—fiction that drew upon and examined modes of experience in an effort to reconcile the conceptual and the experiential, the philosophical and the literary—was being discussed as if it was an instantiation of some general, already formed, theoretical orientation. Sartre’s concern was that the casual circulation of the expression lacked the precision of a philosophical concept, and, thus, failed to adequately capture his theoretical labor. So he would insist that he was not an existentialist but a philosopher of existence. A similar repudiation of the term “existentialism” by Heidegger and Jaspers would later lead Jean Wahl to title his study of their ideas (along with those of Sartre’s) Philosophies of Existence. Of course Beauvoir and Sartre would eventually come to identify themselves as existentialists. As Beauvoir tells it, she and Sartre, recognizing the name had stuck (that it had become a durable feature of their situation or being-for-others), decided to use it for their own purposes. Among the opening salvos of this “existentialist offensive” were Beauvoir’s essay “Existentialism and Popular Wisdom,” and Sartre’s talk at the Club Maintenant “Existentialism is a Humanism.” If the former remains under-read, the latter is arguably the most read and most influential definition of existentialism. No figure is associated with “existentialism” more than Sartre, and, for better or for worse, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” is often positioned as an introduction to his philosophy and existentialism in general.
The terms of this episode—”existentialism” and “philosophy of existence”—are also central to Benjamin Fondane’s 1944 essay “Existential Monday and the Sunday of History,” the opening selection in this important, compact, and always engaging collection of Fondane’s writings. His use of these terms, however, will be quite surprising to most readers, and should result in a deeper, more complex understanding of existentialism. Arguing that it is different in kind from the philosophy of existence, Fondane inserts himself in a genealogy of existentialism that includes Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kafka, and, above all else, the Russian philosopher Lev Shestov. In contrast, Heidegger, Sartre, Jaspers, and Camus are characterized as philosophers of existence. At times Fondane describes existentialism and the philosophy of existence as two generations or waves of existentialism. But his distinction is more than chronological. He compares their relationship to a palimpsest: the philosophy of existence is composed over the text of existentialism, leaving only traces of the original. These traces are the words “existence,” “existent,” and “existential.” Fondane makes clear that he sees this as a dilution when he declares that the philosophy of existence is “a trickling out of the existentialist stream into the sand.” Like a Platonic phantasm, the philosophy of existence is the decoy; the lexical traces are nothing but “the lure needed to arouse the desire to take the bait.”
For many, familiarity with Fondane—philosopher, poet, critic, screenwriter, and director of a lost film—begins and ends with Man Ray’s haunting, two-headed photograph: one of Fondane’s heads looks down, the other, hovering above his lap, looks straight ahead. But something of a resurgence of interest in his life and work is currently underway. For this new collection translator and editor Bruce Baugh has chosen four pieces composed between the years of 1936 and 1944. Along with “Existential Monday and the Sunday of History” there is “Preface for the Present Moment;” an excerpt from Fondane’s book The Unhappy Consciousness; the essay “Man Before History, or, The Sound and the Fury;” and a chapter from the never completed Baudelaire and the Experience of the Abyss. Additionally, Baugh provides an introduction, prefatory remarks for each selection, a selected bibliography of primary and secondary material, and extensive endnotes that help the reader discern and understand the voices (the numerous allusions and references) within Fondane’s voice.
Since most readers will be encountering Fondane’s thought for the first time, Baugh’s introduction, a biographical and philosophical sketch, is important in its own right. In his account of Fondane’s life, Baugh touches on Fondane’s passage through surrealist and heretical surrealist circles, Fondane’s time in Buenos Aires at the invitation of Victoria Ocampo, and his work in cinema. The introduction’s conclusion covers Fondane’s final two years: his defiant stance under the occupation, his arrest by collaborationist forces, his end at the Auschwitz death camp. Baugh addresses Fondane’s unorthodox Judaism, one that has less to do with rigid prescription than the right to transgress. In “Existential Monday and the Sunday of History,” Fondane identifies the essence of Judeo-Christian thought (its “boldest and most revolutionary thought”) as the message that the law is made for man, not man for the law. Following Shestov, he argues that the subversive power of the notion of God’s will lies precisely in its irrationality. Existentialist faith is a sense of possibility that exceeds reason’s reality principle: a belief in the possibility of what reason deems impossible. Such a belief in and demand for the impossible will later be found in the critical theory tradition (Marcuse’s materialist notion of utopia), and in contemporary theories of the event (e.g., Deleuze’s, Badiou’s, and Žižek’s). Against the judgment that Fondane’s philosophy is apolitical, Baugh wants us to see the author’s political stances (his anti-fascism, socialism, and reservations about communism) as connected to one of the most fundamental features of his philosophy: the privileging of the feelings, experiences, and lives of individuals. Anticipating that some readers will find this individualism a romantic abstraction (a celebration of the isolated, atomistically conceived artist), Baugh highlights a somewhat casual and enigmatic reference Fondane makes to Leibniz’s windowless, doorless monads. The existentialist is said to believe in doors and windows, even in, or precisely in, those situations that appear monadic. On Baugh’s interpretation, Fondane’s notion of realizing oneself as an individual (or existent) involves a refusal of insularity—a refusal to close one’s mind, but also to close oneself off from the world. Fondane’s individualism is also a vision of community albeit a paradoxical one: a community of the uncommon, a solidarity among the solitary.
A common denominator of the four selections is Fondane’s distinction between reason and non-reason, the rational and the irrational. In “Existential Monday and the Sunday of History” and “Preface for the Present Moment,” reason is associated with philosophy’s explanatory impulse; the philosophy of existence is defined as reason’s attempt to dampen existentialism’s irrational charge. Fondane’s “Man Before History,” a critique of fascism but also of the claim that fascism is irrational, will remind some readers of Brassens’ song Mourir pour des idées. The abstract notion of nationhood within Fascism, and more generally the belief in sacrificing oneself for an idea, is, Fondane argues, all too rational, and this speaks to the need for a radical critique of reason. Such is the project of existentialists, the true irrationalists. In “Boredom,” Fondane suggests Baudelaire’s work can help us understand the intimate connection between, on the one hand, reason, and, on the other hand, ennui and the attraction of violence.
The different meanings philosophers have assigned to the word “reason,” the fact that the distinction between the rational and the irrational often circulates as simply a rhetorical gesture, and Fondane’s identification with the typically subordinate term of non-reason, requires us to think about the precise image of rationality and irrationality being advanced. Without question, it is Shestov’s definition of existentialism—a philosophy that confronts and checks philosophy’s historically dominant impulse of rationality—that is the key mediator here. A note Fondane affixed to his correspondence with Shestov identified it as his most treasured possession. In his 1935 talk “Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky,” the preface to Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy, Shestov asserts that philosophy’s defining conviction has always been that knowledge is the highest good. Moreover, this emphasis on knowing has involved a specific understanding of what it means to know. To know is to recognize that not everything is possible, and to clearly demarcate what is and is not possible (e.g., through the positing of logical impossibilities). Knowledge is also linked to the systemic devaluation of concrete lives. The philosopher associates the order of individuals with passage in and out of existence, but regards knowledge as knowledge of eternal principles. Individuals are associated with particularity, but knowledge is construed as knowledge of the general. Individual experience only tells us that something is, not that it must be. In contrast, knowing is about grasping what is necessary as necessary—recognizing the impossibility of something’s non-existence or non-occurrence. For Shestov speculative philosophy, specifically Hegel’s theory of history and religion, is simply an extreme variant of these intellectual tendencies. Shestov sees progressive, teleological representations of history as effacing the lives of individuals, especially those of history’s victims. Kant and Hegel famously presented their conceptions of universal history as the philosophical equivalent of the religious idea of God’s plan (theodicy rendered philosophical). But Shestov sees the view of history as deterministically realizing a meaning as having nothing to do with religion and everything to do with philosophy.
For Shestov the philosophy of religion is a false reconciliation of philosophy and religion, or, as he likes to put it, Athens and Jerusalem. For example, Shestov encourages us to see the Spinozist substitution of an immanent for a transcendent God (a substitution reactivated within German Idealism), and the reconfiguration of God’s power as the laws of nature, as philosophy’s attempt to dominate religion through the imposition of reason. At the center of Shestov’s view of religion is the notion of God’s will construed as absolutely free. A philosophy that was truly influenced by this religious principle would be a philosophy that asserts that everything is possible. Fondane would repeat this sentiment: “A God for whom ‘everything is possible’ is the end of philosophy such as it has come down to us from the Greeks.” Refusing to reduce the good life to the life of knowledge, refusing to reduce the real to reason’s representation of it, such a philosophy would be a true critique of pure reason, a philosophical exception to philosophical rationality. Declaring “we have been obliged to go to war against philosophy,” describing himself as an “enemy of reason,” Fondane reiterates and adds to Shestov’s delineation and critique of rationality.
Fondane speaks of philosophical man (homo philosophicus). This is the one who presents their own views and mode of expression as rational, while dismissing alternatives as irrational or meaningless. Fondane sees Aristotle’s assessment of the Platonic theory of universal and particular—“empty words and poetical metaphors”—as representative of philosophical dismissiveness.” When it comes to the ethical-political domain, Fondane sees attacking something as irrational (including legitimate targets like fascism) as a way of avoiding an uncomfortable consideration of one’s complicity in, or resemblance to, the target. Most of Fondane’s critical energy, however, is directed at what he takes to be the dominant image of philosophical truth. The tendencies making up this image include the notion of first philosophy (the goal of a system that is beyond dispute because it rests upon indisputable “truths of reason”); the notion of perennial philosophy (the truths that matter are those for all times); and the notion of universality (truths are truths for all).
At one point, Fondane goes so far as to compare philosophical truth to a “confidence trick.” Philosophy’s first principles are, in reality, convictions packaged as self-evident. Of course the packaging can vary with the principle. Sometimes the philosopher appeals to common sense; sometimes they attack it. Sometimes they invoke experience; sometimes they challenge its reliability. In another passage Fondane describes philosophical writing in psychoanalytic terms as a parapraxis—as an elaborate slip of the tongue. A certain unsaid is a necessary condition of philosophical discourse. Philosophers pose many questions, but these questions all reflect an unquestioned belief in the unlimited value of philosophical knowledge. Unlike Kant, but like Nietzsche and Shestov, Fondane’s critique of reason goes beyond an acknowledgment of unknowables. The question of knowledge’s limited worth is raised, and Fondane’s foregrounding of human suffering is key to how he does this. The author sees philosophical rationality as trivializing suffering in a variety of ways. Suffering is often excluded in philosophical configurations of the intelligible, known world (as if the “real” world does not include suffering within it). Philosophy has also trivialized suffering by downplaying its intractability. Cultivation of the intellect is said to yield Stoic self-possession: the elimination of the passions in a world beyond our control. For Fondane, neither intellectual exercises nor the elimination of social need and inequality are enough to eliminate the dark passions (though Fondane endorses the struggle for such a world as he endorses the fight against fascism). Finally, in his study of Baudelaire, he suggests philosophy trivializes suffering by failing to consider the consequences of eliminating passions. For Fondane, the numbness of dispassion engenders explosions of violence.
“Existentialism” is the name Fondane gives to his critique of, and positive alternative to, reason. Despite his often pejorative use of the expression “philosophy,” he presents existentialism as a reorientation of, rather than an exit from, philosophy. Shestov implored Fondane, “You must not let them treat you as a poet, a mystic. You are a philosopher.” Perhaps heeding this advice, Fondane characterizes existentialism as an alternative form of philosophy. The existentialists’ opposition to “philosophical man” means they are a “new type of philosopher.”
In Fondane’s existentialism, “existent” is a more prominent term than “existence.” At the same time, he stresses that existentialist philosophy should not be confused for a theory of the existent. At its center is not the existent in general, but existents that have become exceptions. For Fondane, everyone has the potential to become an exception, and circumstances that are themselves exceptional, even dangerous, can effectuate such becomings. One also discerns in these texts the view that existentialism is not only about the singular existent, it is also by and for singular existents. Consider the author’s repeated references to cries of torment. Certainly, one function of these references is to delineate the affective dimension of the distinction between existentialism and reason. Fondane associates reason with the privileging of sentiments such as wonder, happiness, and contentment, and with the following formula: philosophy equals knowledge equals the overcoming of the passions. Existentialism foregrounds the dark passions (discontent, anxiety, unhappiness), not to romanticize them, but to contest philosophy’s tendency to ignore human suffering, to treat it as something that can be suppressed through spiritual exercise, or to explain it away through some variant of universal history as progress. For Fondane, though, existentialism does more than advance a different, non-rational view of the passions. Existentialism is itself a passionate discourse: a specific, philosophical type of cry. Existentialism belongs to the “immense cry of misery,” but as an “echo.” This echo is a “coherent discourse,” though it proudly and defiantly risks being labeled incoherent, meaningless, or non-philosophical (it “risks passing for empty discourse and poetic metaphor”). In fact, part of its coherence is found in its sustained assault on those very forces (the forces of reason) that would dismiss it as incoherent. That being said, existentialist discourse does not, according to Fondane, “rise to the level of the concept;” it lacks terminology (conceptual language) as it lacks any methodology other than a certain fidelity to the passion it expresses. If the passionate mode of address is incoherent or empty then it is not philosophical, but if its consistency is that of the concept then it reinforces rather than destabilizes its target. Thoughts that have congealed into theories and theoretical systems reflect reason’s goal of explanatory closure. No wonder the closest thing to a concept in Fondane’s writing is his image of reason, but the word “reason” is used in multiple ways, and the connections between uses are too loose to say that we are dealing with a concept or theory of rationality.
It is this notion of the passionate cry, a coherent but irrational cry, that lies behind Fondane’s division between existentialism and the philosophy of existence. Let us look a little more closely at the author’s explanation for the distinction. Not unpersuasively, Fondane argues that existentialism cannot be defined as a philosophy that addresses what it means to exist. This would make existentialism coextensive with the history of philosophy. The author asserts that it is hard to identify a philosophy that does not take up this question. The model for Fondane’s distinction again comes from Shestov, specifically the latter’s view of speculative philosophy of religion. Reason suppresses what, for Shestov, are religion’s essential impulses: transcendence and the belief that everything is possible (in particular what exceeds the pragmatic and logical sense of possibility). Similarly, Fondane describes the philosophy of existence as the domestication of existentialism: the forces of reason substitute existence for the existent; what knowledge thinks of the existent is substituted for what the existent thinks of knowledge. If, however, our focus is restricted to the subject matter of the writings Fondane considers, it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern why he would classify Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus as philosophers of existence instead of as existentialists. Where in their writings do we see them discussing existence independently of the one that exists? Do we not find a critical interrogation of philosophy’s tendency to reduce subjectivity to the activity of knowing? Does Sartre not explicitly position existence as something we confront more than grasp intellectually (the distinction between existence and essence in Nausea)? Is there not a focus on the very emotions Fondane associates with existentialism? At times Fondane himself suggests he feels a certain kinship with Sartre and Camus, even as he locates them on the other side of the existentialism/philosophy-of-existence divide. Fondane’s classification must therefore involve a judgment about how these writers enunciate their points. Fondane must regard these writings as conceptual or theoretical. They concern existence rather than the existent because they advance theories of the existent. They represent knowledge’s perspective of the existent because, for Fondane at least, their works advance concepts (even if the central concepts concern the pretheoretical or atheoretical) instead of being philosophical cries. In Camus’ case, Fondane highlights and criticizes the final remark of “The Myth of Sysiphus” in which the reader is instructed to imagine Sysiphus as happy. Presumably he would have responded in the same way to Sartre’s characterization of existentialism as optimistic (Sartre’s “existentialist offensive” attempts to deflect the charge of pessimism and morbidity being leveled against the category).
I imagine Fondane would have regarded this review as more philosophy of existence than existentialism. Without question, I have pushed Fondane’s views in the direction of the concept. What I have not done, or even attempted to do, is to capture Fondane’s voice, his echo. It is this, however, that will attract readers to this collection. The rediscovery of Fondane will certainly include the inscription of his work, and more generally existentialism, in discussions of anti-philosophy (or anti-foundationalism). Perhaps existentialism will come to be seen as prefiguring, or even as initiating, this theme (the critique of philosophy is more often associated with Heidegger, deconstruction, structuralism, and neo-pragmatism). The rediscovery of Fondane will contribute to the more general rediscovery of existentialism’s full, variegated terrain. Still, Fondane’s voice is too much the exception to be professionally rehabilitated. This is a writer shared between friends, a writer read when, as Fondane puts it, “the teaching ends.” Like those he most admired, Fondane will remain an outsider: a dark and restless power.
Jay Conway is the author of Gilles Deleuze: Affirmation in Philosophy (Palgrave Macmillan 2010) as well as various essays on Deleuze’s thought. He teaches the history of philosophy as a lecturer at California State University, Los Angeles.
Simone de Beauvoir. Force of Circumstance, trans. Richard Howard (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1964).
Simone de Beauvoir. Philosophical Writings, ed. Margaret A. Simons, with Marybeth Timmerman and Mary Beth Mader (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004).
Benjamin Fondane. Existential Monday: Philosophical Essays, ed. and trans. Bruce Baugh (New York: New York Review of Books, 2016).
Jean-Paul Sartre. Basic Writings, ed. Stephen Priest (New York: Routledge, 2001).
Lev Shestov. Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy, trans. Elinor Hewitt (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1969).
Jean Wahl. Philosophies of Existence: An Introduction to the Basic Thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre, trans. F.M. Lory (New York: Schocken Books, 1959).