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Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Existentialism and Human Emotions" by Jean Paul Sartre

"Existentialism and Human Emotions" by Jean Paul Sartre is not a beginner's introduction to the philosophy.  I think it is at times confused by many as an "easy read" because its slim appearance.  Nothing is ever easy with Sartre.  The book is divided into six parts (seven if you count "The Desire to be God" for two since it is divided into segments), and offers a view into Existentialism directly from the horse's mouth.

The book might be misleading as to its readability (to the uninitiated) because Sartre begins with an explanation of what Existentialism is and is not.  He tackles three major misconceptions/criticisms by both the religious and the secular, and delineates clearly that Existentialism as he advocates it drives at the core of the philosophy itself.  That is to say, as he postulates it, Existentialism is the reality of man, a reality based of an incorruptible drive to be free.  The corruption is done by others, of course, because at the core of this drive, things are exactly what they are and behind them is absolutely nothing.  It all becomes muddled and infested when elements of the artistic or the religious infect human existence.  Man is driven to definitions, Sartre explains, without realizing the answers are in front of him if only he would accept them as they are and not flock to the meaningless.  As a result, we see Existentialism differently from what the general public makes of it even today.  The religious in particular, charges Sartre, have given Existentialism a negative connotation.  He dismisses the additional charge or claim that since one has to accept what is in front of us, that Existentialism is then a philosophy of inaction.  On the contrary, Sartre illustrates that the drive for definition is a drive to become free, and that our own personal freedom accentuates the freedom of others.

The rest of the book is more complicated and takes a greater amount of background information to know and make the connections necessary to understand fully.  Sartre challenges the religious principle because it denies the freedom for man to actively pursue his reality.  This seems contradictory to the common eye, but there's more to the idea than just a counter-argument against religion.  He illustrates the principle that it is actually religion that leaves man to inaction, since the acceptance of fate in the religious what leads to that inaction.  The charge that "if there is no God, then everything is permissible" is a flawed argument, since Existentialism does not advocates the rights on one individual over the rights of another.  This is, I believe, comparable to the culture wars in the United States today.  To not agree with a specific view of the world today seems to automatically categorize certain people to being hate-filled or intolerant.  Sartre presents Existentialism here as a model of tolerance; he is an atheist who challenges the idea of religion without wanting to ban religion.  The core of the argument is not, however, as simplistic as that.  The nature of religion and how it clashes against the secular philosophy and its principles is incompatible with Existentialism.  Sartre sounds conciliatory, but the truth behind these principles is that man cannot be free as long as he is exposed to the "mythologies" of religion, since they adhere to diametrically opposing premises.

There is much complication in "Existentialist Psychoanalysis," but this is not because Sartre obfuscates the matter.  Psychoanalysis is complicated to begin with, and Sartre proposes that Existentialism can break psychoanalysis' dependence on "deconstruction" and rather espouses the capacity for the individual to rationally see what's in front of him, assess it, and choose his own path of action.  On the surface, this part of the book seems unreadable, but a caution-driven reading concentrating on the definition of the terms used and Sartre's own didactic sermonizing can offer clarity.  Sartre is not so much dismissive or critical of Freudian principles as he is like a surgeon, cutting deep in order to make these premises palpable.  "The Hole" is connected to the principles of psychoanalysis, and much sexual-driven counter-arguments are made here.

"Existentialism and Human Emotions" has much to offer today.  In fact, I wanted to title this post "Understanding the Mess We're In: An Existential Approach."  Recently, it seems like every aspect of American life has reached critical mass at the same time.  In other times, issues of race, gender, religion, economic inequality, education and identity moved in and out of the center spot with regularity.  The pendulum always seemed to follow its left-right, liberal-conservative swing driven by the consciousness of the population.  It doesn't seem that way anymore.  Americans need to reassess what it means to seek an individual freedom.  As per Sartre, the freedom we seek for ourselves adds to the freedom of others.  For as much as Americans speak of freedom and liberty, they presently seem to be missing the point entirely.  We must see things exactly as they appear before us and accept our own part in the world.

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