Jonathan Webber: Rethinking Existentialism

Rethinking Existentialism Couverture du livre Rethinking Existentialism
Jonathan Webber
Oxford University Press
2018
Hardback £45.00
256

Reviewed by: Kyle Michael James Shuttleworth (Queens University Belfast)

‘Existentialism’ has long been held as a concept of contention. It has been used as a buzzword for bleakness, and a synonym for pessimism. Despite its misuse within popular culture, it has also been employed as an umbrella term to denote a philosophical movement. The conflation of this concept has led to a legacy of confusion regarding precisely that which constitutes existential thought, and who ought to be considered as an existentialist. Even much of the secondary literature has failed to provide a comprehensive definition of ‘existentialism’. Instead, we are often offered a constitutive list of themes which ‘existentialists’ supposedly share in common, such as nihilism, absurdity, and authenticity. It is precisely this linguistic ambiguity that causes Jonathan Webber to rethink existentialism, and that which he sets about dispelling. In the first chapter, he begins by discarding the outdated interpretations which actively incorporate non-philosophers, and those who rejected this label. Instead, Webber offers a carefully considered account, defining existentialism in accordance with the Sartrean maxim ‘existence precedes essence’. It is from this standpoint that Webber takes the reader on a journey of rethinking ‘existentialism’.

Webber begins to clear the confusion by demonstrating why the label ‘existentialist’ should not be applied to certain associated thinkers. In the second chapter, Webber addresses the misattribution of Camus to the inner circle. Here it is illustrated that Camus rejects the central tenants of existentialism, and that the disagreement between Sartre and Camus is a consequence of their subsequent philosophical stances. Another thinker who was initially associated with existentialism, but whom Webber demonstrates to be on the periphery, is Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In chapter three, Webber depicts Merleau-Ponty’s divergence in terms of his criticism of Sartre’s concept of radical freedom and Beauvoir’s defence that Merleau-Ponty has misunderstood Sartre. Although Webber does an excellent job of disentangling the intellectual connections between these theorists, one would appreciate further elucidation as to why additional thinkers ought to be excluded. Whilst Webber focused his attention on the development of existentialism in post-war France, there are two further thinkers who could have been addressed. Gabriel Marcel, for example, released his Philosophy of Existentialism in 1946, and Jacques Maritain published his Existence and Existent in 1947. As contemporaries of Sartre and self-proclaimed existentialists (at least initially) it would be interesting to see how they fit into Webber’s narrative.
In the positive phase of his project, Webber sets about determining who ought to be included. Until recently, Simone de Beauvoir has been believed to be without philosophical merit. The reason for overlooking her intellectual prowess is often attributed to her own rejection of the label ‘philosopher’ and referral to Sartre as the brains behind their project. Webber takes this to task in chapter four, where he demonstrates that Beauvoir articulates the existential ideal ‘existence precedes essence’ within her metaphysical novel She Came to Stay. Moreover, that the account which Beauvoir presents contains the concept of ‘commitment’ which presents a significant development upon Sartre’s theory of mind. Within chapter eight, a further important, and unexpected, contribution which Webber makes, is to include Frantz Fanon within the existentialist camp. Webber argues that within Black Skin, White Masks Fanon can be seen to ground his theory on the definition of existentialism insofar as he rejects that there is any essential difference between black people and white people. That is, for Fanon the belief that black people are inferior is caused by the sedimentation of a negative cultural representation in the collective consciousness. This is shown to make a significant development from Sartre’s own attempt to explain racial prejudice in terms of bad faith in Anti-Semite and the Jew.

Although Webber defines existentialism in accordance with the maxim ‘existence precedes essence’, he notes that Sartre and Beauvoir initially disagreed upon what this concept entailed. In this way, he maps the development of the definition amongst the advocates themselves. Whilst Sartre is usually considered to be synonymous with existentialism, Webber illustrates that Sartre’s early work is flawed in terms of addressing the problem of absurdity. By tracing the development of Sartre’s thought, Webber shows that Sartre later comes to adopt Beauvoir’s position to reach the mature position where his version of existentialism corresponds to those of Beauvoir and Fanon in terms of their respective concepts of commitment. Having illustrated the various stages in the development of the concept of existentialism, Webber differentiates these forms, which includes Sartre’s early approach, from what he terms the canonical account. Existentialism proper, for Webber, entails that there is no predetermined nature, and that one’s essence is formed through the sedimentation of projects. The canonical accounts of existentialism, according to Webber, are represented by Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and Sartre’s Saint Genet.

The ethical ideal espoused by existentialism is ‘authenticity’ and which is a response to absurdity. Sartre and Fanon are shown to offer eudaimonian arguments for authenticity, which suggests that the desire for authenticity emerges in relation to the realisation that inauthenticity leads to psychological distress. However, Webber notes that Sartre’s and Fanon’s accounts of authenticity fail to sufficiently overcome the issue of absurdity because they cannot address the meta-ethical problem of the grounding of normativity. Although Sartre appears to be at the centre of attention at the beginning of the book, it is Beauvoir who emerges as the hero of absurdity, insofar as she is shown to present the most fully articulated account of authenticity. Beauvoir’s concept of authenticity is shown to be supported by the categorical imperative that we should not value any ends which conflict with the value of human nature. Throughout the text, Webber refers to the ‘virtue of authenticity’, however, he does not explain why we ought to conceive of authenticity as a virtue. It is also difficult to understand the way in which authenticity could be construed as a virtue. If in relation eudaimonia, it does not make sense to refer to authenticity as a virtue because eudaimonia is not a virtue for Aristotle, but the end which the virtues lead to. Again, on the Kantian account, virtues are ends which are also duties, but it is questionable whether a way of life could be considered authentic if we have a duty to live in that particular way. Thus, clarity regarding that which is meant by ‘virtue of authenticity’ would be appreciated in avoiding any such confusion.

Webber makes a number of interesting observations and insights within his book. Whilst existentialism is often thought to be at odds with Freudian psychoanalysis, it is demonstrated that this is not the case. In chapter five, it is argued on the contrary that existentialism in fact falls within the Freudian tradition. Although Freud’s account appeals to innate drives, and the existentialists reject the idea of a predetermined essential-self, Webber illustrates that there is no contradiction, but instead a sustained engagement with Freud in attempting to overcome the Cartesian subject. In chapter six, Webber offers an original interpretation of Sartre’s play No Exit. The standard interpretation is that since ‘hell is other people’, we ought to prefer our own image of ourselves as opposed to that projected upon us by other people. Webber, however, claims that the real moral of the play is that bad faith inevitably impairs our relations with others. In each of these chapters, Webber offers interesting insights which make original contributions to the literature. However, with regards to the overall aim of defining a canonical account of existentialism, neither of these chapters seem directly related.

In the final chapter, Webber brings his analysis to a close by discussing the future direction of existentialism. In particular, he illustrates the practicality of his canonical account and the impact that it could have upon interdisciplinary exchange. Namely, he portrays what experimental science can learn from a more refined account of existentialism, and that this will enable existential-infused approaches to develop further. Although psychoanalytic approaches which have been built upon Sartre’s concept of radical freedom are subject to the same criticism as Sartre, Webber claims this field could undergo a revival were it to instead be built upon the theory of commitment.  Webber also notes that there are further lessons which can be learnt from existentialism. Whilst certain insights have been confirmed by experimental psychology, other claims, such as Fanon’s suggestion that psychiatric problems stem from the internalisation of stereotypes by the victim, remain unexplored. Thus, not only does Webber provides us with an analytically satisfactory account of existentialism, but also demonstrates the benefits possessing a more accurately defined theory.

The current political landscape has been marked by the sustained engagement with race and gender discourse. One can hardly open a newspaper, or read a social media news-feed without encountering a story about gender wage gaps, for example, or racism within first world countries. Whilst much philosophy remains decisively abstract in terms of application, Webber demonstrates how existential philosophers, such as Beauvoir and Fanon, engage with these very issues. In this respect, Rethinking Existentialism is a timely text which demonstrates the contemporary relevance of existential philosophy. Moreover, Webber’s book is lucidly written, and composed in an accessible manner which navigates both the personal relationships between theorists, and the development of their thoughts. Rather than individual sections which trace the trajectory of each theorist’s isolated intellectual development, Webber presents an interwoven account, articulating the development of particular existentialist figures in relation to one another. Whilst other authors confuse and conflate existentialism and existentialists, Webber clears the rubble piled-up and built upon by previous commentators. Webber provides elucidation and a clearing for those with an obscured view of existentialism, and a fresh and coherent perspective for those first approaching the subject. In this way, Webber’s Rethinking Existentialism is not only essential reading for anyone interested in existentialism, but the only book one needs.

Martin Heidegger: The Beginning of Western Philosophy: Interpretation of Anaximander and Parmenides

The Beginning of Western Philosophy: Interpretation of Anaximander and Parmenides Couverture du livre The Beginning of Western Philosophy: Interpretation of Anaximander and Parmenides
Studies in Continental Thought
Martin Heidegger - Translated by Richard Rojcewicz
Phenomenology
Indiana University Press
2015
Hardcover, £35
219

Reviewed by: Kyle Michael James Shuttleworth (Queen’s University Belfast)

In The Beginning of Western Philosophy Heidegger offers a reinterpretation of Anaximander’s and Parmenides’ surviving fragments. His intention, following the project initiated in Being and Time, is to illustrate that the concept of Being bequeathed to us not only rests upon a corrupted concept but that philosophy, as we understand it, is at its very core misguided. The aim of seeking out the beginning of philosophy is suggested at the beginning of the lecture where Heidegger rhetorically questions, ‘Our mission: the cessation of philosophising?’ The self-appointed custodian to Nietzsche’s philosophical heritage, Heidegger believed that the consequences of his task would bring about the end of metaphysics and prepare the grounds for subsequent thinkers. This is evident in the bold assertion, ‘I have no philosophy at all. My efforts are aimed at conquering and preparing the way so that those who will come in the future might perhaps again be able to begin with the correct beginning of philosophy.’ In claiming such, Heidegger can be seen to acquit himself of the charges of ethical nihilism and the claim that his support of National Socialism logically followed from the individualism of his ontology, which severely tarnished his philosophical reputation. However, whether or not this judgment is correct or an attempt to undermine his critics, remains to be qualified.

The text itself is composed of a tripartite structure. The first part focuses on Anaximander’s dictum: ‘but whence things take their origin, thence always precedes their passing away, according to necessity; for they pay one another penalty (dike) and retribution (tisis) for their wickedness (adikia) according to established time.’ Rather than taking Anaximander to be simply discussing coming-to-be and passing away, Heidegger interprets the dictum instead to be concerned with ‘appearing’ and ‘disappearing’. Although the understanding of appearance as the Being of beings, might seem like a linguistic quibble, Heidegger later illustrates that this has profound implications. This reinterpretation then leads him to strip dike, tisis, and adikia of any judicial-moral meaning, and instead understand them as ‘compliance’, ‘correspondence’, and ‘non-compliance’. He also highlights that Anaximander discusses Being ‘according to established time’ which grants validity to his own ontological convictions. In this lecture series Heidegger’s analytic rigour is at its height. In reinterpreting Anaximander’s dictum, which initially appeared to be a quite straight -forward claim regarding being and non-being, Heidegger elucidates that it is a very complex, ontologically loaded statement, indeed.

Part two focuses on the question of Being generally and why it is worthy of our concern. Heidegger begins by considering four objections to the given interpretation: unbridgeable span of time, antiquated, crude and meagre, and unreal. Having dismissed each of these he then continues to elucidate the question of Being. This section is of primary importance to Heidegger scholars who are not only interested in ontology, but also his account of existence. Here his understanding of existence is demarcated as existere, literally, standing out. He also distinguishes his approach from both the public notion and the refined concept employed by Kierkegaard. The latter of these, he suggests, is employed by Karl Jaspers. Heidegger goes to great lengths to distinguish himself from Jaspers, his contemporary and fellow advocate of existenzphilosophie. Here Heidegger claims that although they both use the same terminology, and have been categorised together, that their projects are unrelated. ‘According to the sound of the words Jaspers and I have precisely the same central terms: Dasein, existence, transcendence, world. Jaspers uses all these in a total different sense and in a completely different range of problems.’

The third part, which dominates the discussion, consuming almost half of the text, addresses the fragments of Parmenides’ didactic poem that have been preserved in various sources. This almost mystic text discusses the goddess aletheia, which is usually translated as ‘truth’, but which Heidegger interprets as ‘unconcealment’. In his analysis of the poem, which he discusses meticulously, Heidegger derives three main claims that he believes Parmenides to be making. The first of these is the ‘axiomatic statement’, that Being and apprehension belong together: ‘where Being, there apprehension, and where no apprehension, no Being’. The second is the ‘essential statement’ which provides insight into the essence of Being as excluding negativity: ‘we always encounter only the assertion that matters stand thus with Being’. The third and final claim is what Heidegger terms the ‘temporal statement’, that Being and time exists in an exclusive and necessary relationship: ‘being stands in relation to the present and only to it’. The result of uncovering these three philosophical claims is that they grant validity to Heidegger’s ontological re-evaluation regarding the question of Being.

Through reinterpretation, Heidegger illustrates that the question of Being permeates the very core of pre-Socratic thought. He can thus be seen to continue the project initiated in Being and Time. Written five years later, The Beginning of Western Philosophy elucidates many of the ideas first presented there. By illustrating that Anaximander and Parmenides were concerned with the Being of beings, Heidegger can be seen to open the ground back into Being. However, what about the interpretations, themselves? Are they simply incubators for Heidegger to cultivate his own philosophical inclinations? As with the majority of his lectures and monologues on other philosophers, Heidegger describes their thought in his own jargon and frames it in relation to his own philosophy. Although one may be inclined to dismiss this text on the ground that it does not offer a true interpretation of the content that it claims to, Heidegger himself addresses this criticism. He cautions one who would make such a critique to ‘pay attention primarily not to the means and paths of our interpretation, but to what these means and paths will set before you. If that does not become especially essential to you, then the discussion of the correctness or incorrectness of the interpretation will a fortiori remain inconsequential.’

What of the edition itself? For the same reason that it will be of interest to classics scholars it is repellent to modern academics that are not versed in Ancient Greek. There are dense passages of Greek and terms are often employed with the assumption that the reader possesses prior knowledge. This may have been appropriate at the time Heidegger wrote the lectures, when Ancient Greek was included in the curriculum. However, this modern translation, and the contemporary reader, would have been benefited from the romanisation of the Greek. Moreover, it seems thoughtless that a German-English glossary has been included yet there is no such consideration for a Greek equivalent. A further concern is that the idea of an index has been completely abandoned altogether. The absence of which is of great disservice to the scholar unable to recollect a much needed quote or passage. This edition could also have been improved with an introduction to contextualise the present volume. What was the purpose of these lectures, what preceded them, how does this build upon Heidegger’s project, and what original insights does it offer? In conclusion, to those in the know, the content offers illumination on the ontological trajectory initiated in Being and Time; however, to those less acquainted, this particular edition does not.