Saturday, 10 August 2013

Eid Weekend Existentialism

On this Eid holiday weekend, my post is on getting this whole thing about existentialism right. For long, it has been gnawing on my brain cells and it’s time to let it out in words.

First of all, being a person of faith means I’m an existentialist. But I don’t want to, at least for now, juxtapose Islamic tenets and way of life with existentialism. I might do that in future writings. Suffice here to say that religion has always been existentialist having most, if not, all the elements of how I’m going to define existentialism.

So where did it go wrong? By lumping together diverse thinkers and writers and trying to make an “-ism” from their collective output. Though there are a lot of philosophers bracketed here, I will just consider the three key ones: Nietzsche, Jaspers, and Heidegger.

Naturally I’d have to keep Nietzsche out. Thoughtful as he may have written, or luminously as he may have clarified, a call from an atheist is something I can’t take the leap toward. There is one more reason too.

Of all the themes he worked on, the so-called existentialism is only a part of it. This goes against the whole spirit of any philosophy. One can’t cherry pick a particular strand of thought from a person’s body of work and slot the thinker into that philosophy.

Let’s move on to Jaspers. He was a prolific writer whose produce swelled from a dissatisfaction with the philosophy taught in universities. But voluminous writing is no substitute for clear ideas. Discussing what others have said and then provoking us to be dissatisfied with those ideas, realize our condition, and asking us to be practice philosophy doesn’t make him an existentialist. An escapist, maybe.

Turning to Heidegger, with whom, after so much preoccupation with Nothing, the reader just gets to know that there is something wrong with the way things are represented. What a let down from a confusing wordsmith. Apparently one has to go to recollective thinking, it seems. Probably he is just a fake who did not pay his debts to Eastern philosophy.

Jaspers and Heidegger together also give a strong boost for my arguments. They analyzed Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and arrived at opposite conclusions. Whereas Jaspers prefers Kierkegaard, Heidegger extols Nietzsche. If Jaspers and Heidegger are existentialists, and Heidegger himself does not accept to be termed so, they need to be on the same page on all aspects. Jaspers is out of my list, so is Heidegger.

And then we come to the biggest piece of art, Jean Paul Sartre. It’s he who had defined existentialism. Which is where the whole thing got corrupted, I think.

Existentialism should not be how Sartre expounded it. Whenever I think of ‘existence precedes essence’, it sounds as profound as ‘man has five fingers in each hand, first they are small, then they become big as he grows, and then he cuts his nails to give them proper shape.’ What’s so philosophical about existence precedes essence? It just looks like common sense.

Just try explaining the following to a lay person : “Man will be first nothing. Later he will be what he makes of himself. Human beings are different from animals or objects.” You will see the silliness of the main point that Sartre based his concept on.

If Sartre wanted to be anti-religious and deny God and destiny, he should have just stuck there. But to camouflage his atheism under the framework of existentialism coining such oxymorons as atheistic existentialism is just a phony piece of philosophy.

Nietzsche, Jaspers, Heidegger -- as we say in school lingo : balls to all of them. I then approach the master, Soren Kierkegaard. My point is simple: we look at the themes he wrote. And call that which revolves around those themes, and only those themes, as existentialism.

This is not meant to be creating a doctrine from what he wrote. Kierkegaard himself made it clear against doing so. But we could put a normative framework in place that defines the boundaries of a person’s thoughts, worldview and the way s/he leads their life. Actually, I would like to call it as core existentialism.

Everything else is existentialism interpreted in a certain geo-time situation. It is not existentialism in the core sense. I may not be able to overturn decades of identification of existentialism in a short piece of writing. For the time being, I will just call it as extended existentialism.

So we divide the whole thing into core existentialism (Kierkegaard) and extended existentialism (everyone else). And around this classification, I want to clear my thoughts and elaborate upon, in a few posts later. Do share your thoughts with me, as I think it’s gonna be a long haul, and I need plenty of idea exchanges.

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