Historical Development of Continental Philosophy’s Existentialism

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Historical Development of Continental Philosophy’s Existentialism

Absolute Idealism left distinct marks on many facets of Western culture. True, science was indifferent to it, and common sense was perhaps stupefied by it, but the greatest political movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries— Marxism—was to a significant degree an outgrowth of Absolute Idealism. (Bertrand Russell remarked someplace that Marx was nothing more than Hegel mixed with British economic theory. ) Nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, theology, and even art felt an influence.

The Romantic composers of the nineteenth century, for example, with their fondness for expanded form, vast orchestras, complex scores and soaring melodies, searched for the all-encompassing musical statement. In doing so, they mirrored the efforts of the metaphysicians; whose vast and imposing systems were sources of inspiration to many artists and composers. As we have said, much of what happened in philosophy after Hegel was in response to Hegel.

This response took different forms in English-speaking countries and on the European continent—so different that philosophy in the twentieth century was split into two traditions or, as we might say nowadays, two “conversations. ” So-called analytic philosophy and its offshoots became the predominant tradition of philosophy in England and eventually in the United States. The response to Hegelian idealism on the European continent was quite different however; and is known (at least in English-speaking countries) as Continental philosophy.

Mean while, the United States developed its own brand of philosophy—called pragmatism—but ultimately analytic philosophy became firmly entrenched in the United States as well. Within Continental philosophy may be found various identifiable schools of philosophical thought: existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, deconstruction, and critical theory. Two influential schools were existentialism and phenomenology, and we will begin this chapter with them.

Both existentialism and phenomenology have their roots in the nineteenth century, and many of their themes can be traced back to Socrates and even to the pre- Socratics. Each school of thought has influenced the other to such an extent that two of the most famous and influential Continental philosophers of this century, Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 –1980), are important figures in both movements, although Heidegger is primarily a phenomenologist and Sartre primarily an existentialist.

Some of the main themes of existentialism are traditional and academic philosophy is sterile and remote from the concerns of real life. Philosophy must focus on the individual in her or his confrontation with the world. The world is irrational (or, in any event, beyond total comprehending or accurate conceptualizing through philosophy). The world is absurd, in the sense that no ultimate explanation can be given for why it is the way it is. Senselessness, emptiness, triviality, separation, and inability to communicate pervade human existence.

Giving birth to anxiety, dread, self-doubt, and despair as well as the individual confronts as the most important fact of human existence, the necessity to choose how he or she is to live within this absurd and irrational world. Now, many of these themes had already been introduced by those brooding thinkers of the nineteenth century, Arthur Schopenhauer (see previous chapter), Soren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. All three had a strong distaste for the optimistic idealism of Hegel—and for metaphysical systems in general. Such philosophy, they thought, ignored the human predicament.

For all three the universe, including its human inhabitants, is seldom rational, and philosophical systems that seek to make everything seem rational are just futile attempts to overcome pessimism and despair. This impressive-sounding word denotes the philosophy that grew out of the work of Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). In brief, phenomenology interests itself in the essential structures found within the stream of conscious experience—the stream of phenomena—as these structures manifest themselves independently of the assumptions and presuppositions of science.

Phenomenology, much more than existentialism, has been a product of philosophers rather than of artists and writers. But like existentialism, phenomenology has had enormous impact outside philosophical circles. It has been especially influential in theology, the social and political sciences, and psychology and psychoanalysis. Phenomenology is a movement of thinkers who have a variety of interests and points of view; phenomenology itself finds its antecedents in Kant and Hegel (though the movement regarded itself as anything but Hegelian).

Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, argued that all objective knowledge is based on phenomena, the data received in sensory experience. In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, beings are treated as phenomena or objects for a consciousness. The world beyond experience, the “real” world assumed by natural science, is a world concerning which much is unknown and doubtful. But the world-in-experience, the world of pure phenomena, can be explored without the same limitations or uncertainties.


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