So, I’ve been basically waxing lyrical about the wonders of existentialism over the past few days, so I thought I’d temper it out a little and talk about a few of the criticisms that are applied to existentialism by followers of various faiths and other philosophies. At least, those that I am aware of or have had some experience of – if I don’t mention it here then, the chances are, I might not have heard of it, so if you know more about it than me I’d really love to hear about it!
Alright, we good? Yeah, we’re good.
One of the first criticisms that I came across when I was first introduced to existentialism and started to explore a little more of the world around it, was that of Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse was a German philosopher who criticised pretty much everything from capitalism to technology, because they were simply means of social control. I think he was associated with the Frankfurt school of thought, which also included Adorno – I hated that prick in university.
Anyway, Marcuse, obviously, turned existentialism into something to do with social control – I think the basics of his argument was that existentialist writers, particularly Sartre, would project some of the issues of that they only experienced as a result of living in an ‘oppressive’ or ‘controlling’ society onto the nature of existence itself.
Hey, the man’s got a point! Surely if we were all free and loved one another, then existentialism would never have been born, right? Well, I don’t really know about that – I’d probably say that even in a happy society, or in any society at all, there will also be this kind of hovering Damoclean sword that could lead to existentialism. In fact, I probably say that it could be the result of any kind of critical thinking really.
Roger Scruton is a philosopher who specialises in aestheticism and he used to work in Soviet-controlled Europe, to help more people gain access to education via underground universities/colleges -I think he’s still alive, but he must be getting on a bit now.
Scruton once claimed that Sartre’s idea of bad faith, and the rejection of any kind of all-encompassing moral creed was fairly incoherent. I couldn’t remember the quote of the top of my head – so I had to go a-searching for it – but in his book From Descartes to Wittgenstein he wrote:
In what sense Sartre is able to ‘recommend’ the authenticity which consists in the purely self-made morality is unclear. He does recommend it, but, by his own argument, his recommendation can have no objective force.
Sartre’s response was, simply, that good and bad faith do not necessarily represent moral ideas. Instead, he simply referred to them as ways of existing. Say what you want about Sartre, but he had some cool ways of philosophically saying ‘fuck you’ to anyone who criticised him and his theory.
Logical Positivity Versus Existentialism
Essentially, followers of Logical Positivity believe that the only philosophical problems which actually have any worth or meaning in the real world are those which can be solved using logical analysis and patient, methodical working out. It’s a lot more complicated than that, from what little I know, but I’d say that is a justifiable working definition – if there are any logical positivists reading then I’m sure they can fill me in!
Anyway, from what I understand, they claimed that existentialists like Sartre and Camus were guilty of confusing ‘to be’, which is absent of any meaning without something added to it, and the ‘nothingness’ which is, from a practical definition, the negation of everything – the wiping out or lack of – existence as a whole; the only thing that nothing suggests, in fact, is the inverse of something.
Marxism/Communism And Existentialism
Of course, no philosophical theory could be complete without the Marxists making an appearance! If you’ve ever read Sartre’s novels, particularly The Age of Reason, you’ll know that existentialism runs fairly counter to Marxism on a range of points. Marxism is a very socialist, society-based theory, and the individual, solitary nature of existentialism runs extremely counter to their beliefs.
Not much of a shock there then; something that promotes the self over others is disliked by those who promote society over the self, or the many over the few? Jesus Christ, stone the crows, the missus’ll never believe this one, I think I just saw a pig fly past the window being chased by David Cameron – too soon? Nah.
Anyway, one of their major criticism of existentialism was that its focus on individual choice led to simply think about things, contemplating different courses of action and wondering about yourself, rather than directly leading into action. The argument was also made that only the fairly wealthy, the free, the bourgeois, had the opportunity to make themselves into whatever they wish as a result of their choices and their freedom.
That last argument actually has some point – real existentialism does require a relatively free and at least a fluid society; for all that it is an individual philosophy, it is possible to stop the individual from utilising it – that whole ‘take our lives, but you’ll never take our freedom’ is all well and good, until someone takes your freedom. I might have to think about that one and get back to you – if anyone has an argument for either side, feel free to let us know!
What About Mysticism/Religion And Existentialism?
Suffice to say, besides a few jarring contradictions, existentialism and religion don’t tend to get on too well. I started writing this section, only to realise that it was a much bigger argument than any other – instead, I’ll write a separate post on religion and existentialism.
Obviously, there will be more criticisms levelled at existentialism than those I’ve listed, but I don’t want to pretend to know everything and just reuse information from all over the internet. If you can think of any that I missed – whether they’re related to religion/mysticism/spirituality or any other theory or movement – I’d really love to hear them.