Existentialism

Ever since I did the Landmark Forum in 2009, I have been curious as to know the source of their material. I looked around in libraries, book shops and Wikipedia for hints. Any book that had “Nothingness”, “Racket”, “Strong Suit”, “Being”, “Possibility” in its title or content was catching my attention. I also bought a DVD movie about “Werner Erhard” – the man behind Forum. In the movie I heard him speak of “life is empty and meaningless” being an end point beyond which “existentialism” did not explore further. As I explored more and more – it became quite apparent to me that the Landmark Forum is a neatly packaged bunch of ideas from different domains – existentialism being one of them (or rather the main one of them). I do very much like and appreciate they way they have packaged it and added additional value on top of it. The Landmark Forum is a fantastic way to experience existentialism and leverage its value for creating breakthrough results. I was still curious to explore at my own pace.

I got curious about “existentialism” and explored further – until I came across a book called “Being and Nothingness” from Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre is considered to be a major influence in existential thought and this particular book is thought of as a bible of existentialism. So with lot of enthusiasm I bought the book and began reading it. And for the past 2 years I have been reading it. I have still not managed to completely read it cover to cover. The language is a bit difficult to understand and I take a rather long time to understand stuff – I am not all that intellectual.

I really wanted to get a gist of what Sartre was saying. I then tumbled on this book called “How to be an Existentialist” by Gary Cox. I bought the book on Kobo books and read it “cover to cover”. The book was infact written for dummies like me and it presented existential thoughts and concepts in a simple manner. I got more interested in existentialism after reading this book. I went back and tried reading Sartre again, I read books from Viktor Frankyl another book from Gary Cox, parts of Being and Time from Martin Heidegger. I even watched movies based on existentialism like The Matrix (for the 83rd time), the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, Swashank Redemption, Patch Adams, The Truman Show, Guide, Anand etc. I also had an opportunity to interact with a few people from Germany and France who have explored existentialism at depth and got to hear from them as well.

In this blog post – I want to share a gist of existential thoughts / concepts / terms / distinctions that I have managed to understand by reading books, Internet articles and from people who have studied and internalized existentialism.

Terms and Terminology

A learned man once said

Mastery about any aspect comes about from mastering the conversational or linguistic domain of that aspect. Conversational or linguistic domain is composed by a set of special and carefully chosen terms networked together to talk about a specific aspect. For example the conversational domain for a physician consists of a bunch of specialized terms about the human body and how they are interconnected. A master physician interacts with his world (of patients, ailments, cures etc) using those set of specialized terms. Without those terms a physican would have little or no access to powerfully relating to his world. For example the balloon like structure (in my chest) that helps in breathing in and out is labelled as Lungs. Who cares about what ‘God’ or the ‘Creator’ intended to call it – but labeling it using a specialized term called ‘Lung’ enables us to powerfully understand it and also understand the disorders that can happen for the Lung.

To really make sense of Existentialism – we will first need to get clear about certain terms. Note: meanings of the terms listed below are expressed from the point of view of how I have understood them. I may or may not be an authority in this matter. If this blog post makes you curious to explore existentialism by your own; I think that it has served the purpose

Listed below are key terms in existentialism

  • Being
  • Differentiated and Undifferentiated being
  • Being-in-itself, Being-for-itself and Being-for-others
  • Existence precedes essence
  • Facticity and Transcendence
  • Bad Faith
  • Authenticity
  • Nothingness

I will try my best to explain the terms listed above.

Being – this term refers to something that exists or to something that is thought to exist. Primarily existentialism is a study of reality, of existence. So it is only natural to start with a word that encompasses “real”. That word for existentialists is “being”. The word makes more and more intrinsic sense as one studies existentialism and starts thinking like an existentialist.

Differentiated Being vs Undifferentiated Being – Any being out there in the world exists as it is, until a conscious being (like a human being) takes notice of it and carves it up into (or differentiates it from other) phenomenon. For example – assume that trees have no consciousness (I say “assume” because I dont know whether they are conscious or not and I dont want to get into an argument there). Also assume that they can somehow “see” the world. To a tree, nothing is different from anything else. Everything shows up as one single being. But to a conscious being, like human being – nature / world shows up as a collection of objects. Each object “different” from the other. Individual anything shows up only within the limits of human consciousness.

In existentialism an undifferentiated being is a being that exists simply, without any interpretation. Differentiated being on the other hand is a being that exists “for” a consciousness (or conscious being).

Existentialists argue that consciousness uses negation to differentiate being. To consciousness, beings show up only within the negation of it. Consciousness, they argue, posit being by introducing negations into it. Most common negations are “no longer”, “not yet” and “not this”. For example the notion of time shows up for consciousness as real only because the present is no longer what it was and not yet what it should or could be. On the other hand for a tree, which has no consciousness, – there is no time! Another example – for consciousness, a bottle shows up as a being that is not x, y, z etc..

Try this with yourself. Suppose that you wanted to express to your friend the taste of honey. Also suppose that your friend has really no clue as to what honey is. He has never tasted it and has never even heard or it. How would you express the taste of honey to him. After a couple of trials – you will eventually land up describing to him the taste of honey as “it does not taste like milk or water or oil or juice or lemon or…” So you see, the reality of what is becomes clear through a firm understanding of what it isnt. To put it in a more formal sentence – the existence of being is only in terms of what it is not. Being exists only in relation to its non-being or its negation.

I recommend that you pause for a while and really ponder over this – non-being gives reality to being and it is only within the limits of human expectations does non-being show up. When you put all of this together, you can really get – that the way we get this world is through its non-being. We make sense of the world by understanding what the world isnt. Every single phenomenon (which includes objects, ideas, concepts etc) in the world is understood in terms of “no longer”, “not yet” and “not this”. Interesting paradox right? Wait – it gets better.

Being-in-itself, being-for-itself and being-for-others – These three terms help understand the way in which beings exist for us. First lets try to look at their bare-basic definition. Being-in-itself is a full and self-contained being. Being-for-itself is the meaning conjured up by the being about itself. Being-for-others is the way in which a being exists for the Other. These three terms are better understood with examples and explanations.

For example – the being-in-itself of a rock is nothing but that of a rock. The rock isnt trying to be a musician, chair or anything. It is just a rock. Nothing else but a rock. Being-in-itself has maximum density in its being. As in it is fully being it and nothing else. That is why the being of rock is understood as being-in-itself of a rock. The rock is completely at one with its being because it never ever tries by-itself to be anything but a rock. As a matter of fact it isnt even trying to be a rock because it is already fully a rock and doesn’t need to do anything to be it. Being-in-itself doesnt really need anything else to be. It doesnt need to do anything else than just be. It can just be. Being-in-itself just is.

The being of a Human being cannot be fully understood in-terms of being-in-itself only. Because a human being is never at one with his being-in-itself. A human being is never at one with being a physical body with drives, memory etc. If that were the case – human beings would have simply been by eating when hungry, sleeping when tired, drinking when thirsty, mating when horny and so on. Human beings always project something about themselves – in terms of their role in society, their profession, their aspirations, their expectations, their world-view, their morals, their nationality, their religion, their caste, their financial status etc. In other words – human beings add meaning to their existence. So it can be said that the being of a human being is being-in-itself plus being-for-itself. The being-for-itself conjures up the meaning of the human being.

Now lets be clear that the meaning or the reality of being-for-itself is void or null. While being-in-itself exists in physicality and nature; being-for-itself doesn’t. The for-itself doesnt exist in physicality. [One might argue that the for-itself is a brain function – but I dont want to offer explanations against that notion in this blog post] Which is why they say that being-for-itself is a nothingness, a non-being or a negation of being-in-itself. It is because the for-itself doesnt have a being of its own; it digs into being-in-itself in an effort to become a being-in-itself, without ever being able to do that. A being-for-itself can never attain unity with itself, because its nature is to negate the in-itself. Existentialists love to call this want for attaining unity as “being-for-itself-in-itself” and confuse the already confused reader even more!

The being of a human being, according to existentialists, is characterized by a continuous effort by the for-itself to become one with the in-itself; which is of-course never possible – because the very nature of the for-itself is to negate the in-itself. [If you are unable to make sense of it, don’t fret too much. Just read preceding few paragraphs a couple of times more and you will get it. If you are an existentialist yourself and have studied it at length, but still find the above paragraph confusing and inaccurate – then please do educate me]

Being-for-other – The in-itself and for-itself would have been sufficient to describe the being of a human being – had there been exactly one human being in the world. In actuality there are billions of them (7 billion+ of them). The existence of the Other really kills it for a human being. Sartre says – hell is the Other. A human being when he is alone has the full freedom to project a meaning about himself and to interpret (or differentiate) the world around him in the way he sees fit. But the moment he becomes aware of another – he realizes that he is infact a part of the world for the Other just as much as the Other is a part of his world. He is therefore clear that his own existence is being differentiated (or interpreted) by the Other just as much as the Other’s being is differentiated by him.

The being-for-other is a being that exists for the Other as an object among a world of objects for the Other. A human being may or may not have complete control over how his being-for-other is shaped by the Other. He therefore feels reduced to an object at the instant of gaze by the Other. A man is reduced to his profession, nationality, education level (or degree), financial status by the Other. He becomes an object in-front of the Other, open for interpretation, judgement and evaluation.

Lets be clear that the phenomenon of for-other exists even for non-conscious objects. For example – the being of a rock is the being-in-itself of the rock. But to a conscious being the rock could be a shivalinga or any other idol / symbol. However – we are not interested in the for-others of the rock, because the rock is not interested in its own for-others. A human being on the other hand is. A lot of human phenomenon is heavily for-others (or Other) based. Phenomenon like guilt, pride, disgust, celebration, appreciation, hate, shame etc show up – only because of the for-other. Think about this – would a person watching porn feel shame unless he is caught in the act?

At the core of existentialism is the maxim “existence precedes essence.” This basically means that people exist first, without any purpose, reason or goals; they then figure out their essence (as in what to do with their life). This is drastically different from many other philosophical teachings that proclaim that each and every one of us is born with a intrinsic purpose and that our job is to somehow figure out that purpose. A lot of us get frustrated and stressed as we go through our life, uncovering that purpose.

The idea that human beings exist simply, without any purpose of reason what-so-ever and that they must come up with reason, purpose, essence for themselves is very empowering (although it may not seem so at first). What it basically brings forth for us is – WE ARE ALL ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE MEANING WE GIVE TO OUR LIVES AND THAT AS SUCH THERE IS NO MEANING TO EXISTENCE AND/OR TO LIFE. If life has no intrinsic meaning, then the meaning it has is the meaning we ascribe to it. Many students / thinkers / endorsers of existentialism experience a profound shift in consciousness when they get the above maxim for the very first time.

So powerful is the idea of “existence precedes essence”; that one’s understanding of freedom and responsibility permanently gets altered. Understanding of “Responsibility” shifts from “burden / blame” to “freedom in creating meaning for what’s so in our lives”. Being responsible becomes simply a matter of being someone who recognizes their response ability, their intrinsic ability to generate an empowering response to the situations they confront in life.

Facticity and Transcendence – Facticity is a term used to refer to the sum-total of facts of a being. Note: we are saying facts and not truths. While all truths are facts, all facts may not necessarily be truths. The facticity of a rock, for example, is that it has a particular shape, size, color, density, solidity etc. Another example – facticity of a human being is that he has a body, a past, an already established meaning of himself for himself and for others.

Transcendence is a term used to refer to the indefinite project of a being to go beyond its facticity. Lets be clear that transcendence is a phenomenon that is observable only in conscious beings (beings with for-itself and for-others). For example a college graduate transcends his facticity (of having been a student with no earnings, professional status, job-title etc) by selling his skills and becoming a professional who earns money, status has a job and so on.

As a conscious being, human beings are always transcending their facticity. So much so that the being of a human being is “officially” defined as a being that is continuously transcending its facticity. A human being is never only his facticity. He is also never only his transcendence. He is a transcendence of his facticity.

Whenever a human being considers that he is only his facticity or that he is only his transcendence – he is considered to be in bad-faith.

For example – people who consider themselves to be just their caste, religious association, social status, educational qualification, nationality, job, membership-in-elite-groups are in bad-faith. Because they seem to operate out of a belief that they are their facticity. A teacher is not a teacher just as much as a rock is being a rock. So if the teacher operates out of a belief that he is this teacher thing, then he is in bad-faith.

The same is with people who consider that their past is something they will never be responsible for. For example – murderers, thieves who believe that their past actions will some how never come back and haunt them and that they will never have to transcend their past once they have done so are in bad-faith.

[Update: I have recently posted a bigger and more detailed note about Bad Faith]

We are forever transcending our facticity. We can never be a pure transcendence. If I have committed a murder in the past – I can never think of myself as a pure transcendence and some how disconnect myself from my past. I will forever have to own up the responsibility of having been a murderer and transcend it every moment by choosing to not murder again and to pay for the act (by doing time in prison and/or cleaning up the mess caused because of the murder). If I have not studied hard enough to get into IIT or Harvard, I cannot brand myself as an incompetent or a not-so-hardworking/not-so-intelligent person. I will however have to own-it up and choose to work hard now and transcend it. If I have lost an arm and a leg in an accident – I cannot think of myself as a crippled-and-handicapped-human-thing and resign to depression. Nor can I ignore the fact that I have a missing arm and leg and go about life in dillusion. I will however have to own up (and be responsible) for the fact that I dont have one arm and one leg and choose to engage in activities that will transcend these facts. Facts about me are NOT me. They are however still facts ABOUT ME, they are therefore facts that I will always have to transcend.

Every act of transcendence requires me to fully own up (or be responsible for) my facticity and make a choice about how I conduct myself in the face of that facticity. And each choice is made in complete freedom. Even not doing anything is a choice to not do anything. I am therefore, forever, free. Put more specifically I am forever freely transcending my facticity.

But the catch is this. Every moment I make a choice and do something – that becomes a part of my past; and therefore my facticity. And since I am going to be transcending again the very next moment – the choice I make now will have to be fully owned up the very next moment, in order to transcend again. As a human being I am forever running the project of being responsible for my facticity and freely transcending it every single moment.

Sounds harsh? Well – that’s the way it is. The goods news is that we have already been being that way for a long time now. Infact since birth. We are, so to speak, experts in transcending our facticity. However if we can generate an awareness that we have been transcending our facticity all the while – we can then make a more responsible choice in terms of how we transcend our facticity. Existentialists say that – we are doomed to be free. But the question is – DO WE KNOW IT?

The more we live out of an awareness that we are not our facticity (that we are not a thing among a world of things out there); and that we are forever to take responsibility for our facticity and to choose our way of transcending it – we get closer to being an authentic being. Being authentic is a life long project. Something a true existentialist aspires to be, but can never be it. To brand oneself as a authentic-being-thing; is again an act of bad-faith. It is not possible for a person to be a thing, even an authentic-thing like a being-in-itself.

The good news is that since existence precedes essence and that since there is no meaning to life and that the being-for-itself (which infact runs the project of transcendence of facticity) is a nothingness or non-being; it is quite simple to take full responsibility of our facticity and choose to transcend it with complete freedom. It is simple, but not necessarily easy. Our sense of burden comes from a misguided belief that the world is the way it is and that we cannot do anything about it. The world is infact a differentiated being – a being that shows up only because we are conscious. The world is a being that shows up only because we are positing negations into it. We can therefore paint the world, the way we want. That doesnt mean we can jump from the top of a cliff and expect to not die. It means taking responsibility for the fact that jumping from top of the cliff will kill us and choosing (out of full freedom) to not jump. It also doesn’t mean that just because our facticity doesn’t define us – we should expect IIT or Harvard to award us an admission into their campus even though we don’t have good grades in college. It means taking responsibility for the lack of good grades in college and choosing (out of full freedom) to work harder to get there. It also means being aware that jumping off the cliff, or not jumping off the cliff, or joining Harvard or IIT doesnt mean anything – it only means what we make it mean.

3 Replies to “Existentialism”

  1. To further differentiate, I think the concept of ” bandwidth of choice” needs to be incorporated; the rock has a zero bandwidth of choice; different human beings have different bandwidths of choice; merely wanting to be in Harvard does not get you there; getting there depends on your bandwidth.. Some may call this Karma.

    1. As far as I can understand “Bandwidth of choice” is the range of options/action-paths available for someone while facing a situation.

      Existentialism posits that human beings are forever free and they cannot not be free. Therefore every human being has full access to all possible options/action-paths while facing a situation.

      Making it personal – I do have full access to all possible action-paths/options while facing any situation. I, however, may not be aware of the availability of all action-paths. Perhaps due to my culture, my upbringing, my education, the society in which I live, my world-view, my fears, my strong-suits, my habits etc. Inside of all of this – I see only a subset of the range of action/paths available to me. So I land up picking from that subset of action-paths (thinking that I only had access to those and nothing else).

      As an existentialist would say – I am fully responsible for my freedom. Going by that one can assert that I am fully responsible for being able to recognize/see a limited set of action-paths – therefore I am responsible for my “bandwidth of choice”. Being responsible for my bandwidth of choice leaves me with more power and access – rather than living inside of a world-view that I “dont” have access a wider “bandwidth of choice”.

      About wanting to be in Harvard – for that matter “wanting” in general. Wanting something and not doing anything about it is also a choice I make out of full freedom – and I am therefore responsible for it. What shows up as a result by simply wanting something is my responsibility still.

Comments are closed.