Reading diary, 7/11/05: Existentialism and Human Emotions

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Let me first explain. I got this book because I’m doing a writing project that I thought I should read some Sartre for. Plus, I’ve always assumed that I was more or less an existentialist, without actually having read enough existentialism to back that up; so there was this whole curiosity/guilt thing going. (I’ve read Sartre before, but it was a long long time ago in college and I was probably pretty stoned at the time, so I don’t remember it that well.) Anyway, I was looking for some Sartre that wouldn’t make me want to tear my hair out, and I read somewhere (probably in the Amazon customer reviews) that this was the most accessible Sartre book. Sartre Lite, if you will.

Which it may well be. But if it is, it isn’t saying much. It’s sort of like saying that the bank vault at my downtown branch is more accessible than Fort Knox. It may well be, but I’m still not getting inside.

I’m going to be fair for a minute here. The first chapter of this book is actually both readable and interesting. An excerpt from another book (this entire book is excerpts from other books), it defends existentialism against an assortment of charges that have been leveled against it — that it’s a passive philosophy, that it’s isolating, that it’s unethical or amoral, that it dwells on the negative, etc. etc. In explaining what existentialism isn’t, this first chapter does a good, clear job of explaining what it is.

Which none of the rest of the book does. At all.

What is it about modern philosophy that makes it so goddamn impenetrable? Look, I’m a smart person. I’m a thoughtful person. I’m even a pretty well-educated person, with a college degree and everything. And I couldn’t make head or tail out of huge amounts of this thing. It’s not that the ideas are hard, or hard to follow; I’ve read enough “science and math for the layperson” to know when I’m not grasping an idea because it’s simply over my head. It’s that the ideas don’t seem to make sense. Literally. They read like gibberish, or like surrealism. I can parse the literal meaning of the words and the syntax (usually), but it doesn’t seem to be getting at anything, or at anything important, or at anything that makes sense and has meaning.

Example: “On the contrary, it is a matter of rediscovering under the partial and incomplete aspects of the subject the veritable concreteness which can be only the totality of his impulse toward being, his original relation to himself, to the world, and to the Other.” (p. 61)

Or: “In empirical desire I can discern a symbolization of a fundamental concrete desire which is the person himself and which represents the mode in which he has decided that being would be in question in his being.” (p. 64)

Maybe I’m being too utilitarian or something. But it seems to me that the purpose of philosophy is to offer some understanding of the universe and our place in it; to give some shape to our lives and our choices about how we live them. This isn’t that. This is just intellectual embroidery, or thumb-twiddling, or puzzle-playing. (I’d call it intellectual masturbation, but I think far too highly of masturbation to do that.) Or maybe it’s just unbelievably bad writing.

It’s deeply weird that, as our culture over the centuries has become more egalitarian, our philosophy has become less so. My memory of 18th and 19th century philosophy, and of classical philosophy for that matter, is that the writing was mostly accessible to anyone with a fair degree of literacy and education (which, admittedly, was a small elite group), and that the ideas, while complex, were comprehensible if you followed them closely. But ironically, now that more people are becoming educated and could have access to philosophy, it seems as if philosophy has become out of reach to anyone without a philosophy degree. (The deconstructionists are even worse; I’m not convinced that even *they* know what they’re talking about.)

It’s as if impenetrability has become equated with seriousness. It’s as if the very fact of being understood and valued by largish numbers of people somehow tainted an idea, making it boorish and unoriginal and obvious. It’s as if being comprehensible to the layperson — or to anyone other than a small band of colleagues — means your ideas couldn’t really be all that smart or interesting. After all, if people of only average intelligence can understand you, how smart could you be? It’s a weird logical fallacy — the belief that because many important and intelligent ideas are difficult to follow, therefore being difficult to follow makes an idea important and intelligent. It’s the attitude that’s made “accessible” a dirty word; the attitude that’s made calling a wine “drinkable” an insult.

And fuck that.

Now, to be fair again. Some of the problem here may be that existentialism has become *too* influential, *too* ingrained in our way of thinking — so much so that it just seems obvious. If you’re a more or less secular person, the basic tenets of the philosophy — that we are who we choose to be, that we’re responsible for our own decisions, that there’s no meaning to life except whatever meaning we create — don’t seem at all like radical ideas that someone had to make up and convince people of. They just seem like a given. It’s easy to focus in the impenetrable frills, because the foundation is so solid as to be invisible.

(Although my friend Tim hit the nail on the head, I thought, when he said “Okay, they believe life has no external objective meaning, only the meaning that we create — but for some reason they think that’s a bad thing.” Touche. Sartre does beat his breast an awful lot over the anguish and despair of all this existential freedom, to the point where all I could think was “God, what a wuss.” And whenever he was gassing on about how perfectly free we all are to 100% choose our own natures, I kept thinking that he desperately needed some basic training in genetics, not to mention neurobiology and social science.) Still — a pretty damn solid foundation, for the most part.

And to be fair yet again: Not all modern philosophy is like this. The philosophy of science, for instance, is mostly pretty comprehensible (what I’ve read of it, anyway). You may or may not agree with any or all of their points, but you can usually figure out what those points are. And the same is true for ethics.

Anyway. Blah, blah, blah; rant, rant, rant. I don’t know if I have any real conclusion here. Good thing this is a blog entry and not an essay; if it was an essay, I’d be tearing my hair out trying to come up with some half-assed conclusion, maybe along the lines of “But one thing is true: Life goes on.” I don’t know. I don’t have any conclusion. It just bugs me, is all.

Books I’m currently still in the middle of:

“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond
“The Forbidden Zone” by Michael Lesy
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” by Studs Terkel
“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius
“The Onion Ad Nauseum: Complete Archives Volume 14” by the staff of The Onion
“Zounds! A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections” by Mark Dunn
“Essays” by Michel de Montaigne
“Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment” by Judith Kay Nelson

Reading diary, 7/11/05: Existentialism and Human Emotions

7 thoughts on “Reading diary, 7/11/05: Existentialism and Human Emotions

  1. 1

    This is like the problem I’m having is Paglia. I’m reading Sexual Personnae. Sometimes when I read I visualize the author reciting the material. So when I read Sexual State of the Union, at poignant parts, I would imagine Susie Bright reading the excerpt in question at a bookstore to about 50 seated adults, professing it to College lecture hall of about 120 students, or reading in a studio over a mic for Audible listeners. With Sexual Personnae, I envisioned Paglia conversing in a very imitate, small circle that included Harold Bloom and 4 others at the most, at some wine and cheese reception that was $689 a head (the number of pages). That doesn’t bode well to me as far as feminist repertoire goes. Who is this for I wondered? I understood her points, but I felt like I was eavesdropping. I think the essence of feminism is embracing distinct, individual frames of reference and, with it’s two “i’s”, self-reflection. How could that not be approachable? Of course I’m still going to read all her book before jumping to conclusions, out of respect for the fact another theorist. But I like that all the other sex-positive texts I’ve come across are in first person semi-biographical format. They are speaking from personal experience and not projecting. I have post-modern leanings so I like hybrid texts that fuse high and low art forms. I also prefer horizontal arrangements for feminist rhetoric, as in Bi Any Other Name, rather than pyramidal. Like you said I don’t think accesible automatically means hacky. And if it does, so what? Like Dodson said “fuck the New York Times”. Reclaim hacky and everyone wins.

  2. 2

    Wow. You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. I could never get myself motivated to read much Paglia. I’ve read a couple of her articles and interviews, and she always makes my blood pressure go up, for the reasons you cite among many others. I think if I tried to make it through “Sexual Personae” I’d have a seizure. I just take this stuff way too personally…
    So what do you mean by “horizontal arrangements”? I haven’t heard that phrase before.

  3. 3

    By horizontal arrangements I mean that lay people contribute or feel some egalitarian connection to the leadership and this makes each investment more personal.

  4. 4

    This sort of gibberish is why most British and American philosophy depts. got so frustrated with all the nonsense they felt was in fashion in modern continental philosophy, that they essentially abandoned most of the original turf of philosophy to conduct a good spring cleaning. They decided before we could make much progress on the Big Questions, we’d better clean up how we spoke. They call it analytic philosophy and the short version is this: instead of asking “What is the good?” They ask “When we say something is good, what do we mean by this?”
    Interstingly enough the whole field is divided between two rival schools of thought, both started by the same guy, Ludwig Wittgenstein. And when he was at oxford he would often be spotted stalking across the campus in a blue funk muttering over and over to himself “Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein, you are talking nonsense!”
    One more bit of philoisophy gossip that may help explain why you lose the thread of old JPS after the first chapter or so: Sartre was a lifelong amphetamine user and always used it in abundance and non-stop when he was writing Philosophy. Not so with his plays and fiction which I find benefit from the omission.If you have any first hand aquaintance with stimulant abusers, you may have noticed: their conviction that they are getting smarter and smarter outlasts any shred of evidence to support that view. Why johnny can’t blink.
    To me,Nietzche and Camus could write. With a beat you could dance to even. The rest of the existential/phenomenolgy crowd verge on self-satire a lot of the time.

  5. 5

    Oh, my God. Sartre was a speed freak? That explains EVERYTHING. Nobody but a speed freak could babble quite so incoherently (and at such length) about total bullshit while being absolutely convinced that what they’re saying is both uniquely brilliant and urgently important. God knows I spent enough of my youth being drug-addled… but at least I knew in the cold light of day that “Tom Peterson has stuff written on the back of his head” didn’t have the same total-perspective-rearranging impact it seemed to the night before…
    I guess I should give Nietzsche and Camus a try. My memory of Nietzsche is that he seemed like a macho jerk, but it’s been many years since I’ve read him. I’ve stayed away from Camus, mostly because he seemed totally depressing (something I never understood about the Exis, why the whole “your life is totally your own with no external meaning or guiding hand” thing was supposed to suck so badly). But maybe I’m not being fair. I have a friend who insists that Thomas Hardy is a laff riot… maybe Camus is the same.

  6. 6

    Hi:I read and enjoyed your comments about Sartre. I am not a good person to comment on its general fairness, since philosophers like me who are trained in the analytic tradition (most of us in phil depts in the US, United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Australi, New Zealand, Canada) don’t know much about “continental” philosophy—Sartre, Heidigger, Kirkegaard, etc. Since you give phil of science a “good” rating, I think you’d prefer writings in the analytic tradition in general. Like you I find the continental group maddeningly dense, self-satisfied, etc. Their object seems to be to mystify rather than to clarify. The best excuse I’ve heard for this is that they try to get at knowledge via a poetic rather than a logical path. “Modern philosophy” can go both ways. I can recommend some great analytic articles for those interested—-Including, of course, some of my own.

  7. 7

    Just a thought: isn’t the English Sartre we have to read in translation? Could it not simply be the translator’s fault that it sounds and reads like bullshit?
    I’ve found this with a few German philosophers that I studied (I was a philosophy major) and being German, and understanding the language, the original was a hell of a lot more accessible.

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