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Dostoyevsky and Existentialism
Dostoyevsky and Existentialism Existentialism is a word that I have long found puzzling, despite studying it in depth for many years, and writing extensively on it. Reading The Brothers Karamazov helps to see how existential thought relates to scientific reason. Existentialism assumes that existence is the only truth, but expands on the psychology of science in asking how existence relates to faith as the expression of the human condition.
Walter Kaufmann is the author of Existentialism from Dostoyevesky to Sartre. I have just checked the index of my copy of another of Kaufmann’s books, From Shakespeare to Existentialism and found some comments that illuminate why people call Dostoyevsky an existentialist. Heidegger, the most systematic existentialist philosopher, had a bust of Dostoyevsky on his desk. Kaufmann presents an elegant definition of existentialism as Goethe’s ‘reflective wit which does not halt before the numinous’, an attitude that expressed the modern response to Dostoyevesky’s problems of miracle, mystery and authority as the heart of delusion. The idea of the numinous is central to the existential attitude, as a standing forth into ultimate reality, unwilling to accept lies.
The problem, identified by both Dostoyevesky and Nietzsche, is that human attempts to engage with the numinous are often delusory. Kaufmann observes that Nietzsche puts it eloquently in his Antichrist where he says ‘in the son that becomes conviction which in the father was still a lie’. What this means is that the evolution of culture typically sees one generation who use stories for social purposes, conscious that the stories are invented, but their successors increasingly find that admitting the invention is harder than pretending the stories are true, and so the fantasy petrifies into ideology and dogma. For Dostoyevsky this rampant psychological problem of entrenched delusion is expressed in the views of the Grand Inquisitor that Christ overestimated human capacity for truth. The church, in its focus on miracle, mystery and authority, is responsible for entrenching delusion as a primary means of social control, rationalized as a way of saving people from freedom.
Kaufmann describes the individuality of Dostoyevsky’s characters as tormented, like the existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, limited, poor, infinitely pathetic and upsetting. He says Dostoyevsky was like Kierkegaard in being a man of faith, but “his psychological insight was unclouded by any illusion.” Such clarity of insight is the mark of existential openness to reality. Kaufmann says the heart of Dostoyevsky’s work is that we can no longer be sure we love the loveable and detest the detestable. Openness to all reality is the piety of poetry, a reverence not for tradition but for experience, impressed by the disjunction between experience and custom.
Disjunctive thought finds a center in interpretation of Christ. Kaufmann observes that Nietzsche pictured Jesus as Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin from The Idiot, as psychologically incapable of resistance, and so sharply distinguished from the heroic, but able to experience blessedness. Celebrating blessedness, a term routinely disparaged as imaginary, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche seem able to imagine grace unclouded by illusion.
Kaufmann finds another intellectual center in Freud, who remarked that things that seem fantastic to many have long been known by existential thinkers. The central theme of The Brothers Karamazov, parricide, expresses a psychological portrait of the dysfunctional and undiscussed nature of cultural transmission across generations, marked by resentment, rejection, and desire for upheaval. So Freud sees a continuity of the Karamazov predicament with the greatest works of literature, Hamlet and Oedipus. Dostoyevsky’s existential outlook emerges in the unwillingness of the Karamazov sons to crystallize the lies of their father as convictions, even while they are condemned to continue inherited behaviors, as their instincts control their reason. Existence provides the horizon of reality. Alyosha, the saint, is in the end the great existentialist, the most honest and coherent of all, a man of rational faith.
And when we speak of “abandonment” – a favorite word of Heidegger – we only mean to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to draw the consequences of his absence right to the end. The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain type of secular moralism which seeks to suppress God at the least possible expense. Towards 1880, when the French professors endeavoured to formulate a secular morality, they said something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis, so we will do without it. However, if we are to have morality, a society and a law-abiding world, it is essential that certain values should be taken seriously; they must have an a priori existence ascribed to them. It must be considered obligatory a priori to be honest, not to lie, not to beat one’s wife, to bring up children and so forth; so we are going to do a little work on this subject, which will enable us to show that these values exist all the same, inscribed in an intelligible heaven although, of course, there is no God. In other words – and this is, I believe, the purport of all that we in France call radicalism – nothing will be changed if God does not exist; we shall rediscover the same norms of honesty, progress and humanity, and we shall have disposed of God as an out-of-date hypothesis which will die away quietly of itself. The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that “the good” exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom. Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimise our behaviour. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. – We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does. The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never regard a grand passion as a destructive torrent upon which a man is swept into certain actions as by fate, and which, therefore, is an excuse for them. He thinks that man is responsible for his passion. Neither will an existentialist think that a man can find help through some sign being vouchsafed upon earth for his orientation: for he thinks that the man himself interprets the sign as he chooses. He thinks that every man, without any support or help whatever, is condemned at every instant to invent man. As Ponge has written in a very fine article, “Man is the future of man.” That is exactly true. Only, if one took this to mean that the future is laid up in Heaven, that God knows what it is, it would be false, for then it would no longer even be a future. If, however, it means that, whatever man may now appear to be, there is a future to be fashioned, a virgin future that awaits him – then it is a true saying. But in the present one is forsaken.
This is the passage that has long puzzled me about the meaning of existentialism, because it makes little sense to me. Heidegger criticised this passage, despite being celebrated in it, arguing that the slogan 'existence precedes essence' is not true. Dostoyevksy used his comment about everything being permitted as a critique of atheism, and it seems Sartre takes the bait, rejecting any coherence in morality.
My view is that humans have an essence that is biological, with our genes providing evolving moral instincts. We also have capacity to tap a higher essence, a rational spirituality. It is quite ironic that Sartre accidentally quotes Saint Paul at Romans 1:20 "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse." Sartre in the bolded comment above, implies that Paul is shifting responsibility from himself onto God by saying God is manifest in nature. But in worshiping the actuality of the moment of choice as the source of existential freedom, Sartre tears humanity from its natural context and roots. This is why Heidegger, in his Letter on Humanism, sees existentiality as a standing forth into human essence.
One of the key arguments of the Letter on Humanism is a development of the thesis presented in the Introduction to Metaphysics that 'the ethical' has become the degraded modern moral counterpart of what the ancients understood as the 'ethos'. If our ethics are effectively to assist the understanding of truth and the improvement of the human situation, they cannot be only a matter of arbitrarily decided rules and norms, but must be anchored in the ground of our Being. Only ontological thought can identify such grounds, because ontological attunement to Being as a whole is indispensable to the grounding of our actions in the primal subsistent basis of life. For Heidegger, this primal subsistent basis is identified with the ‘ethos’. He therefore suggests that ethos "denotes not mere norms, but 'mores' based on freely accepted obligations and traditions".
The ‘ethos’ is interpreted in the Letter on Humanism as the creative foundation of authentic ethics. In his essay ‘Gelassenheit’, this was taken further with the statement that for “human work to flourish, man must be able to mount from the depth of his home ground up into the ether. Ether here means the free air of the high heavens, the open realm of the spirit.” The notion that ethics must establish a foundation in ethos relies on the figurative paradox of finding a ground in something heavenly, in so far as the ether is the environment of the ethos. It is noteworthy that Heidegger’s use of ‘ethos’ is designed to retain a phenomenal content for ethics, grounding it in something that can appear to us, in a way wholly transcendental ideas cannot.
Further, I commented on Sartre as follows [url-http://rtulip.net/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/7_Place_of_ethics_-_II.285191410.pdf]here[/url]
Heidegger continually returned to this same theme of the truth of Being as the goal of reflection and the reality of fate, in order to reinforce the necessity for philosophy to recognise and become open to this reality. The conception of projection implicit in this doctrine of eksistence is markedly different from the humanism of Sartre, who made the ethical dimension of existentialism more prominent, but in a way that diverged from Heidegger’s views. Sartre's celebrated claim that existentialism is defined by the reversal of Plato’s statement that essence precedes existence has become a key to the existentialist idea of freedom and its critique of idealist epistemology, and the controversy engendered by this epistemological point is apparent in Heidegger's criticisms of Sartre's doctrines. Sartre's thesis, that because existence precedes essence, truth must be understood as the actuality of the present moment, appears at first to be more likely to bring philosophy to a recognition of its real embodied situation than Heidegger's ideas, but this is not the case. Heidegger saw Sartre's thesis as representative of the way the theory of knowledge arising from metaphysical thinking refuses to ‘let being be’, and so become open to Being as destiny, because of its eagerness to decide in advance what has priority and what doesn't. He therefore refused to follow Sartre's acceptance of an overhasty schematisation of reality. Sartre may have been more renowned than Heidegger for his rejection of popular idols such as God and absolute value, but often his views involved a mere negation without recognition of the internal worth of the ideas he dismissed. For example Heidegger refused to accept Sartre's condemnation of idealism as the mere vestige of an archaic false consciousness, partly because he was unwilling to accept that the present is more real that the past or the future, on the ground that authentic ontology does not relate only to the here and now, but must be open to the whole of history. More importantly, Heidegger thought that idealism and realism cannot be methodically reduced and prioritised. Although he criticised the idealism which grounds entities in an indefinite and negative "un-thing-like" way, Heidegger maintained that "Idealism . . . has an advantage in principle . . . (because) Being cannot be explained through entities". It is well known that Sartre found much of his philosophical inspiration from Being and Time, but Heidegger considered that Sartre’s appropriation of his ideas involved a severe distortion. In particular, the thesis of the priority of existence over essence diverged from the intention of Heidegger's statement that our essence is found primarily in our existence, which refers instead to our capacity to project upon our possibilities and thereby become open to Being as a whole. Heidegger thought that the differentiation between existence and essence is perhaps the key issue for philosophy, as it "completely dominates the destiny of Western history and of all history determined by Europe", but it is impossible to define and prioritise this differentiation within a limited ideological scheme. Sartre is mistaken to infer that Heidegger wanted the statement in Being and Time that "the essence of man lies in his existence" to affirm the priority of actuality over potentiality, because Heidegger meant no such thing. Instead the statement refers to the standing forth into the light of Being formalised in the notion of eksistence. Sartre attempted to use Heidegger's ideas as a buttress for his humanist philosophy, which has as a central doctrine the suggestion that "we are precisely in a situation where there are only human beings". However Heidegger felt that Sartre based this attempt on an inadequate understanding of what the phenomenological destruction of metaphysics sought to accomplish. For Heidegger, we are in a situation where principally there is Being, and Sartre remained with metaphysics in oblivion of this truth. The only way to escape from the ideological ensnarement of metaphysical delusion is to become open to the primacy of Being for thought and to undertake a rigorous and measured investigation of its meaning. Sartre refused to do this because he regards the actuality of the present moment as more important. So whereas Sartre understood humanism as a positive political ideology, Heidegger reminds us that 'isms' have for a long time now been suspect; he says they begin to flourish only when original thinking comes to an end and when thought slips out of its proper element, the truth of Being.
Last edited by Robert Tulip on Mon May 30, 2011 3:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Dostoyevsky and Existentialism
I don't pretend to understand the Heidegger passages or what Heidegger was all about. I only think that what can be stated with clarity, without reference to luminous or numinous concepts (such as Being), has something to recommend it. Sartre is perfectly clear in the passage you quoted. I don't know if that's characteristic of him or not. His saying that we are condemned to be free is brutally honest. Does your objection to him have anything to do with the bleakness of what we are left with? Or is there a true error in his thinking; I mean an error that doesn't have to do just with previous philosophy? Why can't his assessment of human life without God be accepted?
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Re: Dostoyevsky and Existentialism
If you will bear with me for a small amount of philosophical jargon, the analysis of freedom involves an understanding of two factors that are in tension - facticity and existentiality. Facticity is what is given to us from the past, the weight of reality and tradition and fate. Existentiality is our conscious capacity to freely create the future. Pure freedom, in Sartre's view, requires the view that existentiality is unconstrained by facticity, and that denial of this existential freedom is an act of bad faith.
Now this is a fine romantic notion, pure freedom, but it is not realistic. There is an ethical dimension in Sartre's call that we should not blame the past for our inability to decide and for constraining our choices, but I really don't agree that his vision of a human rationality unconstrained by fate matches to reality.
It is not the bleakness of an absence of God that concerns me, it is the idea that the actuality of the moment of decision takes all moral priority over the weight of tradition.
'Existence' in Sartre's sense is pure rational freedom. 'Essence' includes how our present is linked to our past. It is paradoxical and wrong for Sartre to claim that existence in some sense precedes essence. Such an attitude denies that our biological and cultural linkages should ever determine our choices.
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