A short introduction to existentialism

by Sebastian Benthall

I’ve been hinting that a different moral philosophical orientation towards technical design, one inspired by existentialism, would open up new research problems and technical possibilities.

I am trying to distinguish this philosophical approach from consequentialist approaches that aim for some purportedly beneficial change in objective circumstances and from deontological approaches that codify the rights and duties of people towards each other. Instead of these, I’m interested in a philosophy that prioritizes individual meaningful subjective experiences. While it is possible that this reduces to a form of consequentialism, because of the shift of focus from objective consequences to individual situations in the phenomenological sense, I will bracket that issue for now and return to it when the specifics of this alternative approach have been fleshed out.

I have yet to define existentialism and indeed it’s not something that’s easy to pin down. Others have done it better than I will ever do; I recommend for example the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the subject. But here is what I am getting at by use of the term, in a nutshell:

In the mid-19th century, there was (according to Badiou) a dearth of good philosophy due to the new prestige of positivism, on the one hand, and the high quality of poetry, on the other. After the death of Hegel, who claimed to have solved all philosophical problems through his phenomenology of Spirit and its corollary, the science of Logic, arts and sciences became independent of each other. And as it happens during such periods, the people (of Europe, we’re talking about now) became disillusioned. The sciences undermined Christian metanarratives that had previously given life its meaningful through the promise of a heavenly afterlife to those who lived according to moral order. There was what has been called by subsequent scholars a “nihilism crisis”.

Friedrich Nietzsche began writing and shaking things up by proposing a new radical form of individualism that placed self-enhancement over social harmony. An important line of argumentation showed that the moral assumptions of conventional philosophy in his day contained contradictions and false promises that would lead the believer to either total disorientation or life-negating despair. What was needed was an alternative, and Nietzsche began working on one. It made the radical step of not grounding morality in abolishing suffering (which he believed was a necessary part of life) but rather in life itself. In his conception, what was most characteristic of life was the will to power, which has been characterized (by Bernard Reginster, I believe) as a second-order desire to overcome resistance in the pursuit of other, first-order desires. In other words, Nietzsche’s morality is based on the principle that the greatest good in life is to overcome adversity.

Nietzsche is considered one of the fathers of existentialist thought (though he is also considered many other things, as he is a writer known for his inconsistency). Another of these foundational thinkers is Søren Kierkegaard. Now that I look him up, I see that his life falls within what Badiou characterizes” the “age of poets” and/or the darkp age of 19th century philosophy, and I wonder if Badiou would consider him an exception. A difficult thing about Kierkegaard in terms of his relevance to today’s secular academic debates is that he was explicitly and emphatically working within a Christian framework. Without going too far into it, it’s worth noting a couple things about his work. In The Sickness Unto Death (1849), Kierkegaard also deals with the subject of despair and its relationship to ones capabilities. For Kierkegaard, a person is caught between their finite (which means “limited” in this context) existence with all of its necessary limitations and their desire to transcend these limitations and attain the impossible, the infinite. In his terminology, he discusses the finite self and the infinite self, because his theology allows for the idea that there is an infinite self, which is God, and that the important philosophical crisis is about establishing ones relationship to God despite the limitations of ones situation. Whereas Nietzsche proposes a project of individual self-enhancement to approach what was impossible, Kierkegaard’s solution is a Christian one: to accept Jesus and God’s love as the bridge between infinite potential and ones finite existence. This is not a universally persuasive solution, though I feel it sets up the problem rather well.

The next great existentialist thinker, and indeed to one who promoted the term “existentialism” as a philosophical brand, is
Jean-Paul Sartre. However, I find Sartre uninspiring and will ignore his work for now.

On the other hand, Simone de Beauvoir, who was closely associated with Sartre, has one of the best books on ethics and the human condition I’ve ever read, the highly readable The Ethics of Ambiguity (1949), the Marxists have kindly put on-line for your reading pleasure. This work lays out the ethical agenda of existentialism in phenomenological terms that resonate well with more contemporary theory. The subject finds itself in a situation (cf. theories of situated learning common now in HCI), in a place and time and a particular body with certain capacities. What is within the boundaries of their conscious awareness and capacity for action is their existence, and they are aware that beyond the boundaries of their awareness is Being, which is everything else. And what the subject strives for is to expand their existence in being, subsuming it. One can see how this synthesizes the positions of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Where de Beauvoir goes farther is the demonstration of how one can start from this characterization of the human condition and derive from it an substantive ethics about how subjects should treat each other. It is true that the subject can never achieve the impossible of the infinite…alone. However, by investing themselves through their “projects”, subjects can extend themselves. And when these projects involve the empowerment of others, this allows a finite subject to extend themselves through a larger and less egoistic system of life.

De Beauvoirian ethics are really nice because they are only gently prescriptive, are grounded very closely in the individual’s subjective experience of their situation, and have social justice implications that are appealing to many contemporary liberal intellectuals without grounding these justice claims in resentment or zero-sum claims for reparation or redistribution. Rather, its orientation is the positive-sum, win-win relationship between the one who empowers another and the one being empowered. This is the relationship, not of master and slave, but of master and apprentice.

When I write about existentialism in design, I am talking about using an ethical framework similar to de Beauvoir’s totally underrated existentialist ethics and using them as principles for technical design.

References

Brown, John Seely, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid. “Situated cognition and the culture of learning.” Educational researcher 18.1 (1989): 32-42.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The ethics of ambiguity, tr. Citadel Press, 1948.

Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press, 1991.

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