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Best Definition of Existentialism?

Posted: 10-04-2011 01:54 AM
by cybrwurm
The philosophy known as Existentialism is actually not too difficult to define. Confusion obtains solely because there are as many bad definitions of existentialism as there are good ones; and few are astute enough to consistently distinguish between them ... The best definition of existentialism that I have come across was given way back in 1959 by the English author Colin Wilson (one of my all-time favorite writers) in a fascinating little book entitled 'The Age of Defeat'. On page 109 of this study on the 'hero' he describes it this way:
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"Existentialism is an attempt to map and explore human complexity;
its chief 'bete noire' [ie. something especially hated or dreaded] is
oversimplification (or abstraction)."
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- the almost definitive one - cybrwurm ;>

Posted: 10-04-2011 10:50 AM
by Fan
The answer is 42, but the problem is we have never known what the question is.

Re: Best Definition of Existentialism?

Posted: 10-04-2011 11:03 AM
by HB3
cybrwurm wrote: "Existentialism is an attempt to map and explore human complexity;
its chief 'bete noire' [ie. something especially hated or dreaded] is
oversimplification (or abstraction)."


Oh, I think that's a very bad definition. Surely Wilson wasn't putting that forward as a "definition," was he? Sounds like a description of one of its characteristics following a definition. How does this definition distinguish it from Christianity or any other theology or philosophy?

Posted: 10-04-2011 11:58 AM
by Diogenes
Honestly Cyberwrm is too smart for me - don't even know how to respond to anything.

:confused:

a little Q & A

Posted: 10-04-2011 03:51 PM
by cybrwurm
On 4Oct Fan say: The answer is 42, but the problem is we have never known what the question is.
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Right. That's why humankind invented myth and religion, philosophy and science, and literature in general; namely, to answer questions that can't be asked. But while philosophy also answers, it also seeks the questions that haven't been asked, and asks the questions that most need to be asked. For example: Is the world heading for a major political and economic shake-up?
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HB3 say: Oh, I think that's a very bad definition. Surely Wilson wasn't putting that forward as a "definition," was he?
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Er no, that would probably be my idea. Sorry, my bad.
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HB3: Sounds like a description of one of its characteristics following a definition.
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Sounds good to me. So lets go with that then. :)
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HB3: How does this definition distinguish it from Christianity or any other theology or philosophy?
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Most theologies and philosophies tend to focus more on other things, external things mostly, so even if they agree that there is complexity both inside and out, they're just not that interested in exploring human complexity when there are other (more interesting or productive?) areas to investigate.
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Diogenes say: Honestly Cyberwrm is too smart for me - don't even know how to respond to anything.
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Uh? The answer is 42?

Posted: 10-04-2011 03:56 PM
by Diogenes
Ok then 42 it is.

Posted: 10-04-2011 04:38 PM
by HB3
Most theologies and philosophies tend to focus more on other things, external things mostly, so even if they agree that there is complexity both inside and out, they're just not that interested in exploring human complexity when there are other (more interesting or productive?) areas to investigate.
Yeah, I don't think so. I think you'd have to contextualize "Existentialism" as having to do with the concept of "existence before essence" as defined by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Here's a good book on the subject...just released on Kindle!

William Barrett's Irrational Man

Posted: 10-04-2011 07:02 PM
by badspell
Yet another word to confuse the simpleā€¦.Like me!

Existentialism is nothing more than life itself. If we knew what is or why what would be the purpose of life itself ?

Maybe life should be experienced rather than analyzed.

Posted: 10-04-2011 08:12 PM
by HB3
No, really, it's a specific philosophical and literary movement started in France in the years following WWII. This is made slightly more problematic by some critics (like Bennett, actually) saying that Existentialist themes have recurred throughout history, but really, it's most associated with post-war France. Some critics also point back to the 19th century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, as a prototypical Existentalist, in fact a "Christian Existentialist," but mostly it proceeds from Nietzsche's declaration that "God is dead" to struggle with the meaning of existence in a Godless or undirected universe. That's what Sarte meant by "existence precedes essence": there is no natural or inborn meaning, which was largely a new and unique historical experience.

Posted: 10-04-2011 08:34 PM
by Diogenes
OK I get it now.:D

Posted: 10-04-2011 08:54 PM
by cybrwurm
HB3 say: Yeah, I don't think so. I think you'd have to contextualize "Existentialism" as having to do with the concept of "existence before essence" as defined by Jean-Paul Sartre.
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E-before-E is an important insight, to be sure; and something that also distinguishes it from other theologies and philosophies. We can certainly throw that into our flexible definition of existentialism as an inquiry into human-complexity. After all, there are a lot of theologies, philosophies, and sciences (chiefly the humanities) that deal with 'man' in various ways according to various guiding methodologies and principle ideas and goals. So for example, economics defines 'man' as a 'pleasure-calculator' etc. So everybody ought to recognize the human-complexity that all this implies and proves, but they don't, at least not explicitly in writing (except perhaps for the original pioneers of these fields).
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Here's a good book on the subject ... just released on Kindle! William Barrett's Irrational Man
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Actually, I already have the pocket-book version, which I love and have read several times over the years. I have to keep re-reading my favorite books because I tend to forget all about them after a few months. But thanks anyway for the amazon link; I like the reviews. Here's a snippet from one review entitled 'Existentialism may not work, but ...'
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S.Guha say: ... This is the problematic of existentialism, which Barrett (correctly) identifies as the "homelessness" of man in a world bereft of religion, hitherto his only sure ladder to the transcendent. Existentialism might succinctly be defined as the attempt to continue living philosophically in the deafening, intolerable silence that follows the collapse of that ladder. <snip>
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So here we have existentialism understood to be a dynamic activity; on the one hand as 'living philosophically', and on the other as an ongoing exploration of human-being. Or, to put it another way, life before analysis. Which idea flows logically from "existence before essence". For existentialism, then, (as for Epicurus) truth arises from that which is. So while the living part is more important than the analysis part, both are required to form an adequate definition of existentialism.

Posted: 10-04-2011 09:05 PM
by HB3
Your last paragraph sums up why I don't like it, and why Bennett's book ended up bugging me. But it'd be hard for me to explain why in detail. I didn't like his defense of the modern (particularly modern art) as simply, "that's the way it is, there's no going back," particularly when it comes to the denial of the transcendent.

Posted: 10-05-2011 12:26 AM
by cybrwurm
HB3 say: Your last paragraph sums up why I don't like it, and why Bennett's book ended up bugging me. But it'd be hard for me to explain why in detail. I didn't like his defense of the modern (particularly modern art) as simply, "that's the way it is, there's no going back," particularly when it comes to the denial of the transcendent.
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"Bennett's book"? You mean 'Irrational Man'? It bugs you somehow, you say?
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Maybe because he ties things up into a too neat package?
Existentialism is, after all, a rather messy business; much like economics.
Moreover, it's not so easy to dismiss the full weight of history (which is
also a very messy business), or the eternal appeal of the transcendent.

Posted: 10-05-2011 09:30 AM
by HB3
Yeah, Barrett. Don't get me wrong -- he's brilliant and that book's a classic. I'm impressed that you know it. But yeah, there were quite a few things about it that bugged me. Generally it struck me that the post-war group of scholars Barrett was a part of could still luxuriate in Western Civilization even as they critiqued it without really living with the consequences of that critique -- but we're sure as hell living with it now.

I also have some reservations about statements like "truth is based on what is." If that's meant to signify something more than a redundancy, it appears to be some sort of animist/anarchist philosophy of meaning being immanent in the "present moment" and morality proceeding from this and only this. I totally disagree. Go spend some time in the Congo to understand the limitations of this philosophy.

Posted: 10-05-2011 10:33 PM
by cybrwurm
HB3 previously say: ... and why Barrett's book ended up bugging
me. But it'd be hard for me to explain why in detail.
wurm say: I know what you mean. I feel the same way about 'Atlas Shrugged'.
There's something odd about that Reardon guy that I just don't like ... grrr
HB3 say: Yeah, Barrett. Don't get me wrong -- he's brilliant
and that book's a classic. I'm impressed that you know it.
If you think that's impressive, you should see my little library: two bookcases of nine racks stuffed to the gills with a wide variety of different books; almost half of which are philosophy type books (450 or so, maybe?) ... Including such greats as Santayana's 'Life of Reason' (the one volume version) and Croce's 'History as the Story of Liberty'. Neither of which treasures I have as yet finished reading; as these are tough books with hard to chew pages. :(
HB3: But yeah, there were quite a few things about it that bugged me. Generally it struck me that the post-war group of scholars Barrett was a part of could still luxuriate in Western Civilization even as they critiqued it without really living with the consequences of that critique -- but we're sure as hell living with it now.
And future generations will pay an even stiffer penalty for our collective 'mismanagement'.
HB3: I also have some reservations about statements like "truth is based on what is." If that's meant to signify something more than a redundancy, it appears to be some sort of animist/anarchist philosophy of meaning being immanent in the "present moment"
"anarchist philosophy of meaning" - I never thought of it quite that way before; but eye do rather like the sound of it. :D
HB3: and morality proceeding from this and only this. I totally disagree.
I totally agree to disagee with this latter clause.
HB3: Go spend some time in the Congo to understand the limitations of this philosophy.
The Congo? Well I don't know about that place, but limited or not, truth has to be based on something that everyone has immediate access to; namely, reality as we know it: an ongoing social construction of considerable age and size.