Jonathan Webber: Rethinking Existentialism

Rethinking Existentialism Book Cover 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 In the first chapter, he begins by discarding the outdated interpretations which actively incorporate non-philosophers, and those who rejected this label.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.

Jean Wahl: Philosophies of Existence, Routledge, 2019

Philosophies of Existence: An Introduction to the Basic Thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre Book Cover Philosophies of Existence: An Introduction to the Basic Thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre
Routledge Library Editions: Existentialism
Jean Wahl
Routledge
2019
Hardback £80.00
132

Robert D. Stolorow, George E. Atwood: The Power of Phenomenology: Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Perspectives, Routledge, 2018

The Power of Phenomenology: Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Perspectives Book Cover The Power of Phenomenology: Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Perspectives
Robert D. Stolorow, George E. Atwood
Routledge
2018
Hardback
142

Andrea Altobrando, Takuya Niikawa, Richard Stone (Eds.): The Realizations of the Self, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018

The Realizations of the Self Book Cover The Realizations of the Self
Andrea Altobrando, Takuya Niikawa, Richard Stone (Eds.)
Palgrave Macmillan
2018
Hardback $119.99
IX, 292

Jonathan Webber: Rethinking Existentialism, Oxford University Press, 2018

Rethinking Existentialism Book Cover Rethinking Existentialism
Jonathan Webber
Oxford University Press
2018
Hardback £45.00
256

Hans Bernhard Schmid, Gerhard Thonhauser (Eds.): From Conventionalism to Social Authenticity: Heidegger’s Anyone and Contemporary Social Theory, Springer, 2017

From Conventionalism to Social Authenticity: Heidegger’s Anyone and Contemporary Social Theory Book Cover From Conventionalism to Social Authenticity: Heidegger’s Anyone and Contemporary Social Theory
Studies in the Philosophy of Sociality
Hans Bernhard Schmid, Gerhard Thonhauser (Eds.)
Springer International Publishing
2017
Hardcover 96,29 €
VI, 278

Peter E. Gordon: Adorno and Existence

Adorno and Existence Book Cover Adorno and Existence
Peter E. Gordon
Harvard University Press
2016
Hardcover £23.95
272

Reviewed by: Jarno Hietalahti (University of Jyväskylä)

Peter E. Gordon has written a compelling book entitled Adorno and Existence about Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno’s relationship to existentialism. Gordon admits in the very first sentence of his book that Adorno was not an existentialist, however, according to Gordon’s analysis, Adorno was intrigued by existentialism and tantalized by phenomenology through his academic career. Gordon offers a new research perspective on Adorno’s work which has often been bypassed by secondary literature. He suggests that, although Adorno is renowned as one who challenges philosophies of existence, his position as a critic is not as straightforwardly negative as one might think.

The structure of the work begins with early ontological matters, it moves to The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), then towards Negative Dialectics (1966) and finally to salvaging metaphysics. The form and the content of the book intertwine in a spiral which lures the reader in its undertow. In a laudable manner, Gordon offers a comprehensive view of Adorno’s often forgotten and marginalized writings and lectures. All in all, the sources he refers to in support of his endeavour are well chosen for the task in hand.

Despite the complexity and depth of the subject matter, the book reads well thanks to Gordon’s skills as a writer and his philosophical acumen (for instance, his book Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, 2010, won the Jacques Barzun Prize from the American Philosophical Society). It would have been prudent and useful to readers if an accessible list of references had been included, and not only a list of aberrations, as this would save the reader from searching through the endnotes for titles which have been referred to. This small criticism aside, Gordon conducts encompassing and convincing research to demonstrate the importance of key existentialist thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger from the beginning of Adorno’s academic career through to the final days of his life. Gordon builds the story eloquently; he starts and ends with Kierkegaard and the structure is insightful as Adorno wrote his Habilitationsschrift (a second dissertation) on Kierkegaard, and lectured on his work during the last years of his career (a 40 year timespan).

It is not surprising that Gordon presents Heidegger as the main opponent and counterpart to Adorno’s thought as Gordon has analysed Heidegger’s philosophy in his other books and in numerous articles (e.g. Gordon 2003; 2007; 2013). In this text he tries to situate Heidegger’s phenomenological philosophy alongside Adorno’s social criticism; a daring and respectable task. Gordon argues that Adorno’s central idea about the primacy of the object is an attempt to finish what existential philosophers had sought to accomplish before him. According to Gordon, Adorno’s relentless criticism of existentialists is a redemption of existence. When Adorno argues that Kierkegaard and Heidegger failed to overcome a lurking idealism, it is because he envisions his philosophy as “the overcoming of existentialism but also its fulfillment” (145).

Gordon is clearly aware of Adorno’s repeated criticism of existential philosophers as the book examines even the harshest parts of these writings, however, he claims this is a reversal recognition. For Gordon, as Adorno’s intensive interest in existentialism and phenomenology spans multiple decades, he must see a hidden potential in these philosophical systems despite the failings he makes explicit. This speculative claim gives ground to a deeper consideration and reframing of Adorno’s critical thinking. Gordon builds on the old and accepted truth about Adorno (that if he states something, he will denounce the very same thought just a couple of pages later) to point to some neglected ironies in Adorno’s works and reminds us that it is intellectually insincere to focus on isolated critical slogans. As Adorno writes in the Negative Dialectics; philosophy should not forget its clownish traits: “Philosophy is the most serious thing, but then again it is not all that serious.” (Adorno, 1966, 14)

Counting on the aforementioned trait in Adorno’s writings, Gordon is able to turn the tables around time and time again. For instance, he notes how Adorno criticizes époché (a method of phenomenological bracketing) which is supposed to help to catch the pure oneself; a method of understanding and seeing how the world exists for one. Adorno suggests that this method fails miserably, and is basically transcendental xenophobia. Despite this straightforward crushing, Gordon finds evidence on how Adorno goes beyond a mere superficial panning, and wants to seek truth in what he has just a moment ago considered to be phenomenological untruth. Adorno, according to Gordon, does not want to refute phenomenology through negation but, instead, he is on a quest to show how this “failure bears within itself a hidden philosophical insight.” (64)

As the text proceeds, it is easy to grasp Gordon’s primary objective; to show that Adorno has an intellectual bond with existentialism and phenomenology. Gordon takes the sheer number of references provided as proof of this. However, one cannot accept that Gordon necessarily gets it right when he suggests that Adorno did not specifically reject existential philosophy just because he returned to the same themes again and again over many decades. Adorno was always critical towards authoritarianism, for example, and he never ceased to question the socially shared insanity in the Western world but it would be wrong to suggest that, because Adorno wrote so much about authoritarianism he saw a hidden promise in authoritarian thinking and movements.

The text does contain some careless formulations occasionally, e.g. Gordon considers Adorno a satirical writer who tries to pop the balloons of rigid authority with his dry and poisonous wit and it could be argued that true satirists tend to offer something to replace their ridiculed targets but Adorno does not do this. Instead, he uses bitter humour to belittle shared cultural insanity, philosophical hypocrisy and individuals who are simply wrong (according to his perspective). In his mockery Adorno rarely offers sympathy for the target of his ridicule; instead, he is sarcastic and quite often smug in relation to the way he offends others. Interestingly, Gordon includes an extract of one of Adorno’s letters to Herbert Marcuse where he belittles Heidegger’s student Otto Friedrich Bollnow after the publication of The Jargon of Authenticity (December, 15, 1964): “Ernst Bloch phoned to say that because of the ‘Jargon’ Bollnow is having a nervous breakdown. Let him.” (88). Adorno does give a charitable rationalization for his so-called satirical technique when he tries to embarrass people; he thought that once an authority is ridiculed its fragile nature is revealed (through laughter), then the followers of that authority would be keen to stop worshipping their former hero. This is the very same sociological thought on which Henri Bergson’s Laughter (1911) is based. Bergson argues that laughter is a form of social control and a tool to straighten people up from their silly habits. Sadly for Adorno, this does not justify every kind of banter, and a mere rationalization hardly turns a ruthless mockery into a more constructive form of satire.

At times, Gordon makes questionable rhetorical choices and one can identify a subtle smugness in formulations such as “Those who come to critical theory burdened with customary opinion…” (6), or “Adorno’s critical orientation can appear relentlessly negative, and many readers fail to see that his negativity still flows, however faintly, with a rationalist’s hope for a better world.” (11) If these points are to be taken literally, Gordon is suggesting that merited Adorno scholars are taking a ‘wrong’ approach and one might ask, where does this leave those who are new to Adorno’s work?

Similar accusations are present throughout the text as Gordon suggests that Adorno scholars who interpret his written works on existentialism as sidesteps and meaningless aberrations from the philosophical core do so neglectfully. Despite such criticisms Gordon himself displays intellectual lapses in relation to Heidegger as, though he acknowledges the controversies about Heidegger’s relationship to National Socialism, he claims that this should not cloud our vision of his philosophy. However, for the critical theorist truth is always historical and social circumstances must play a significant role. A shrug of the shoulders is not enough to allow one to bypass Heidegger’s engagement with National Socialism; this is a major issue of debate which has recently resurfaced due to the publication of the so-called Black Notebooks (2014a, 2014b, 2014c).

Whilst Gordon agrees that philosophical texts are part of a social whole (at least in Adorno’s case), he also claims that they cannot be reduced to this whole. It is on these grounds that he seeks to excuse the omission of any treatment of Heidegger’s relation to fascism in this text. Unfortunately, the rationale behind this omission not entirely convincing. Gordon allows himself privileges that he denies to others; he regards dubious writings by Heidegger as mere deviations (though some scholars argue that they are essential), and at the same time he claims that certain works by Adorno should not be neglected as they allow one to trace the development of his critical thinking. It is not entirely consistent for Gordon to claim that Adorno’s marginal texts are important (as one may understand them as intellectual test laboratories), but Heidegger’s marginal texts (which several scholars consider as representative of his philosophical thinking) should be considered mere sidesteps.

Gordon describes how the political and economic situation forced Adorno to emigrate from Germany to England in the 1930s, and how racial laws resulted in the decommission of his professorship. The situation resulted in Adorno having to complete a second doctorate at the University of Oxford in an intellectual environment where his enthusiasm for social theory was not shared. Gordon claims “it is against this sombre background of exile and isolation that we must understand Adorno’s readiness to bury himself in the texts of classical phenomenology.” (59) He makes a valuable point, but it again raises the issue concerning the importance of taking the social-historical situation into account when analysing the work of Heidegger.

Let us consider what remains untreated by Adorno and Existence; e.g. Gordon mentions Karl Marx twice and Sigmund Freud only once, yet both are highly influential thinkers in relation to Adorno’s intellectual development. The text concerns Adorno and existentialism so there is no need for a comprehensive study of these two critical thinkers; even so, a comparison of their influence on Adorno with that of existentialists’ would have been a valuable addition. Also, Adorno’s concept of somatic impulse (which is based on psychoanalytical thinking) is completely neglected by this text. Through this concept Adorno presents an individual with the possibility to feel that there is something wrong with the world without giving positive answers to the problem. Somatic impulse comes close to what Erich Fromm (Adorno’s former colleague and rival) calls ‘existential needs’; as they offer a dialectic but normative standpoint for both philosophy and social criticism. It would have been interesting to read about whether Gordon finds any connection between somatic impulse and, e.g. the phenomenological idea of ‘being in the world’.

All in all, Adorno and Existence is an important and insightful book as it highlights previously untreated features of Adorno’s intellectual development and his academic career. Gordon’s work presents an interesting historical and biographical study; his style concerns an original method which requires one to assemble clues that are presented through a complex story (which has not been told or fully understood before). In the style of Adorno, Gordon reminds us; that if one is to criticize something, it means that one has to make a serious and rigorous attempt to analyse the target of the criticism, otherwise the enterprise engages in nothing more than cultural chatter (a point which is well formulated and taken into account throughout Gordon’s work). It is unclear if jury will be unanimous with their verdict on this particular book as both phenomenologists and critical theorists may find the book, eventually, not entirely convincing. That said, Gordon succeeds in giving food for thought and opening up new perspectives to Adorno scholars about Adorno’s intellectual relationship to existentialism and phenomenology.

The gravest problems with the book (discussed above) lie on the meta-level and, if a brief speculation is allowed, Adorno would probably not agree with Gordon’s analysis in relation to Heidegger. Adorno, one of the sharpest critics of fascism in the 20th century, is portrayed as the saviour of Heideggerian phenomenology. Many philosophers argue (especially after the publication of the Black Notebooks) that there is an intrinsic connection between Heidegger’s philosophy and anti-Semitism. If this is the case, then Adorno himself would be rather appalled by Gordon’s conclusion: that Adorno is the one who wants to save Heidegger’s philosophical project. It is difficult to couple Heidegger (a member of the Nazi party from 1933 until the end of Second World War), and Adorno (a persecuted Jew who had to leave his motherland because of the atrocities committed by the Nazis). The historical burden is so heavy that it cannot by bypassed with a mere statement that the author does not agree with Heidegger’s fascistic tendencies but is not going to treat the question of how they are present within his philosophical works. Some scholars (e.g. Rée 2014, Losurdo 2014) argue that Heidegger’s anti-Semitic ideas taint only his person and do not impact deeply on the core of his philosophy. However, critics such as Peter Trawny (editor of the Black Notebooks) argue that Heidegger actually processed his anti-Semitic ideas philosophically. The issue of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism and its presence in Heidegger’s works should be taken seriously when discussing a critical thinker like Adorno (from a Jewish background) as it is significant in relation to understanding Heidegger’s legacy. Unfortunately, Gordon does not make such an attempt.

Referred works

Adorno, T. W. 1964. The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. K. Tarnowski and F. Will, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Adorno, T. W. 1966. Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton, New York: Seabury Press, 1973.

Bergson, H. 1911. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans., Cloudsley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999.

Gordon, P. E. 2003. Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy. University of California Press.

Gordon, P. E. 2007. “Hammer without a Master: French Phenomenology and the Origins of Deconstruction (or, How Derrida read Heidegger).” In: Historicizing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Gordon, P. E. 2010. Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Harvard University Press.

Gordon, P. E. 2013. “The Empire of Signs: Heidegger’s Critique of Idealism in Being and Time.” In: The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time. New York: Cambridge.

Heidegger, M. 2014a. Überlegungen II–VI (Schwarze Hefte 1931–1938) [Reflections II–VI (Black Notebooks 1931–1938)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Heidegger, M. 2014b. Überlegungen VII–XI (Schwarze Hefte 1938/39) [Reflections VII–XI (Black Notebooks 1938/39)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Heidegger, M. 2014c. Überlegungen XII–XV (Schwarze Hefte 1939–1941) [Reflections XII–XV (Black Notebooks 1939–1941)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Losurdo, D. 2014. “Heidegger’s black notebooks aren’t that surprising.” In: The Guardian. March 19, 2014.

Rée, J. 2014. “In defence of Heidegger”. In: Prospect. March 12, 2014.

Sacha Golob: Heidegger on Concepts, Freedom and Normativity, Cambridge University Press, 2016

Heidegger on Concepts, Freedom and Normativity Book Cover Heidegger on Concepts, Freedom and Normativity
Modern European Philosophy
Sacha Golob
Cambridge University Press
2016
Paperback £19.99
290