How to be more excellent to each other--and yourself
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
An introduction to existentialism
After we're dead, it is only a matter of time until everyone around us forgets all about us. Not only that, but within millions of years (maybe even billions), the sun will have destroyed everything on earth, and nothing any of us have ever done will seem to have mattered. So it seems like, based on this radical contingency of life, our lives seem absurd and meaningless. A contemporary philosopher (and I wish I could say who--I am a man of many facts, but few citations) once responded to this concern with the following: would life be any less absurd, any less meaningless, if we didn't die? A world where everyone lives for eternity seems like it would be just as absurd, just as meaningless. The same goes for the universe being here in the first place. The universe has only "what", and it does not care about your "why".
There is another end to the absurdist argument, and it is this: nothing in our lives has meaning outside of its cultural context. Similar to the way that a gas planet is a mass held together by nothing but its own gravitational force, culture is a web of relationships held together only by shared, agreed-upon meaning, and nothing else. This leaves us free to assign our own meanings to things in life, since these meanings are radically contingent, and so are any roles that our culture has prescribed for us. The trade-off, of course, is that this rejection of one's own culture will alienate oneself from that culture. But for one to live up to one's full potential as a human being, this rejection and subsequent alienation can sometimes be necessary for happiness and well-being.
Here is a brief bibliography for learning about existentialism from its source materials:
Being and Time, by Martin Heidegger. This is one of those books that philosophers call "difficult," often read only in upper division and graduate-level courses, so feel free to skip it. I put it here mostly because I would call Heidegger the godfather of existentialism. Grandfather? I mean that, even if he himself isn't quite an existentialist, without Being and Time, what we call existentialism might not even have existed. (The movement itself is radically contingent!) Being-in-the-World by Hubert Dreyfus is generally accepted to be the best commentary out there for understanding Being and Time, and it just so happens that Futurama's Professor Fernswarthy is based upon Dreyfus. Anyway, the best stuff in Heidegger is in Division One, and you shouldn't go further into Division Two than section II or III. After that, Heidegger tries to derive time from being itself, and later philosophers have shown him to be incorrect.
Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre. I haven't read more than a few pages of this, but more than any other book, this is the one people think of when they think of existentialism. Dreyfus once said in a lecture that it was a brilliant misreading of Heidegger. "You would have to be a genius to get Heidegger wrong the way that Sartre does."
The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus. Most of the vocabulary surrounding talks of existentialism comes from this essay (not to mention many of the ideas that are in the above Dinosaur Comic), though I haven't read it myself. It's, um, it's on my reading list. He wrote something of a sequel, called The Rebel, which I am reading right now. I think I'd understand the sequel better if I read the first one.
I think that list is in ascending order of relevancy? But I kind of look at it as being descending order of academicness, because I tend to think of myself as an academic before anything. If you are looking for some secondary source about existentialism in general, which draws upon these source materials, I have no idea how to help you. Maybe there's an "Existentialism For Dummies" book out there. But I'll tell you now that if you only read that secondary source, or only read The Myth of Sisyphus, you are going to sound like a freshman philosophy student when talking about the subject. This is only a good idea if you are in high school, and you can impress those around you with fancy philosophy talk.
If you are that dude in high school who is trying to impress ladies, you should also read The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir (or, better yet, read the original French, where it is Le Deuxième Sexe). "You got your philosophy in my second-wave feminism!" "You got your second-wave feminism in my philosophy!" In addition to having the potential to be more impressive, the words inside the book have the potential to make you talk to women as if they are other human beings, rather than just something warm to put your dick in.