Thursday, 19 April 2012

Existentialism - Seminar Summary

Our seminar looking at Existentialism was an interesting one for me. We began with a discussion on defining what existentialism really is. Admittedly, it's difficult to define effectively. An existentialist holds beliefs and views tying with free will and society's effect on us. The society that we find ourselves a part of will mold and shape our expectations of the world, our relationships and our actions. The approach is based upon the idea that we, as people, determine our own fate. We are free and responsible to take the actions we deem appropriate in any given situation. We are, therefore, the people we choose to be.

Famous existentialists that we've covered in the past include Satre and Heidegger. Satre's early work focused on the study of phenomenology. Existentialism is closely related to Phenomenology and psychology, dealing with the subjective perceptions of things we interact with. 

Phenomenology is defined as: 'An approach that concentrates on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience'. The picture seen below is known as Husserl's Duck/Rabbit conundrum. Based upon how you look at the picture, your perception will change. Study the picture one way and you'll see a rabbit. Look again and you'll see a duck. How is this related to existentialism? The image shows that perception and intention are linked. When you study the picture, you choose what to see. It is our choices that define our existence as humans. Consciousness is intentional and meaning is fixed subjectively, however some ideas and bits of knowledge have priority over others.

Above: What you see will change depending on what you choose to see

Heidegger, the second existentialist I mentioned, wrote 'Being and Time'. The book was released in 1927 and  had a big impact on 20th century philosophy. Heidegger was interested in how the personality developed over time. Before his work surfaced, it was widely assumed that the personality did not change. We were born with particular behavioural characteristics and that was that. This was wrong, however, according to Heidegger. His beliefs said that the personality was ever-changing. We could therefore, in his mind, be born one way (with certain behavioural characteristics) and die another. Time, for Heidegger, was a structure of being. For him, it wasn't what we do that was of interest. Instead, it was how we come to understand what it is that we do.

Heidegger also came up with the concept of being, or the 'Dasein '. The Dasein was very important to existentialists, who felt that it would enable us to further our understanding of what it meant to exist. Heidegger said: "Dasein exists. Furthermore, Dasein is an entity which in each case I myself am. Mineness belongs to any existent Dasein, and belongs to it as the condition which makes authenticity and inauthenticity possible".

Heidegger claims we view the past with guilt, the present with dread and the future as unknown. Sticking with the subject of guilt and dread, Satre was known to have famously stated: "Hell is other people". The phrase originated from Satre's play titled 'No Exit', which told the story of three main characters who discover their fate consists of spending eternity locked in the same room as each other.

The phrase explains that there is no metaphysical heaven or hell. Instead, it is our interactions with others that are the source of our despair. For Satre, 'hell' was having to mold oneself into what society wanted. It was the feeling that we must constantly ensure we are keeping those around us happy. As Satre was an existentialist, this seemed foolish. We should, in his mind, be the people we choose to be, instead of adapting to suit the wants of others. This links with the narrative running through Camus' 'Outsider'.

Our reading in preparation for the seminar was 'The Outsider' by Albert Camus. I thought the book made for an interesting read, particularly during the main character's time on trial. The book is particularly relevant to the existential movement due to the personality of the novel's main character, 'Meursault'. 

Meursault is a particularly detached individual who seems to lack emotion according to the people he interacts with. Following the death of his mother, Meursault seems to show no sadness towards what has happened, instead carrying on his love affair with 'Marie'. He doesn't break down at the thought of not having a mother anymore, instead going on with his life almost as if nothing has changed at all. Meursault  is blunt and brutally honest with even the people closest to him. Even when his lover, Marie, asks him if he would marry her, Meursault 'told her it didn't mean anything but that I didn't think so'.

As is pointed out by the author during the afterword, Meursault is considered an outsider by society purely because he is not willing to lie. He finds himself on trial after shooting an Arab man multiple times and in the jury's eyes he is a guilty man, as he shows no signs of upset when explaining what happened. Meursault has multiple characters speak about his case in court, explaining that he did not appear upset at his mother's funeral. When asked if this is true, Meursault is not willing to pretend he was upset just to appear an innocent man.
Above: Albert Camus, author of The Outsider

How is the novel linked to existentialism? Meursault is taking an existential stance. He is unwilling to alter his actions for the good of others, instead being the man he wants to be and refusing to feel guilty for this action. Even during the trial, Meursault is described as an individual without a soul because ultimately, he isn't willing to blindly adapt to the world around him.

Whilst MeursaultMeursault's actions throughout the novel. Nothing means anything, so everything means nothing. Nihilism claims there is no reasonable proof of a higher being, which Meursault proves he agrees with during his outburst towards the end of the novel.  Meursault says: "I replied [to the chaplain] that I didn't believe in God. He wanted to know whether I was quite sure about that and I said I had no reason for asking myself that question: it didn't seem to matter".

As Camus himself says: "Meursault doesn't play the game. The answer is simple: he refuses to lie. Lying is not only saying what isn't true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and, in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels." The author goes on to add: "He [Meursault] says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened."

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