Aug 21, 2014

Freedom, Choice, and Success: What Is The Existentialist Stance? (part 1)

A very interesting conversation occurred during my latest talk in the Glimpses Into Existence lecture series, one carried out in large part by some of the participating audience members.  The talk was about Franz Kafka's works and thought -- and as far as Existentialist thinkers go, he is rather a cagey one when it comes to coming right out and expressing his own perspective on matters. 

In this, he differs not only from the philosophers, theologians, and psychologists -- who one would expect to speak in their own voice, so to speak.  Even if many of them are deliberately anti-systematic, by the very nature of that kind of writing, those authors are going to reveal to us, their readers, what it is that they think about matters.  It's a bit different with literature, though -- plays, novels, short stories, poetry.

In those sorts of media, it is not always so simple to identify the position staked out, or even just assumed, by the author.  The persona speaking through one of Rilke's poems need not be the stance of Rilke himself.  The characters arguing about philosophy in Dostoyevsky's novels need not represent his own settled convictions.  We could say the same about the words placed into the mouths of the figures in a play.  Does Sartre really think that "Hell is other people?" or does the fact of it being expressed by a character impose a requirement of reserve upon us?

Still, it is possible, particularly when we correlate what is done, what is said, the explanations, the choices, the confusions in a literary work with some of the other writings of an author, we can piece together a picture, and determine more or less what the author's stance is.  With Kafka, it is not quite so easy as that, and so some very interesting questions can be asked about what it is that he aims to say, what truths or even just suggestions he wants to communicate.

One of the central themes running throughout the literature and philosophy which gradually became associated into the "Existentialist movement" is that of the relationship between freedom, experienced in choice, and what appears to us its opposite -- constraint, control, even fate, a kind of determinism in which we human beings find ourselves enmeshed.

So, what then was the issue that was raised -- and what does it reveal to us?  One of the participants expressed a kind of dislike, disagreement, perhaps even disgust (you'll have to listen and judge for yourself) for a position commonly enough expressed in our society.  It's one that a certain misreading of central existentialist texts and doctrines -- a misreading with something else foreign added in -- naturally enough leads to.

The idea is that, since a person is free -- radically free -- able to choose not only within ranges of alternatives, but even how to understand those alternatives, what criteria or authorities or anything else to use to decide, to make one's decision on, and one is even free to decide who one will be. . . then the upshot is:  you are completely responsible for who you are, what your conditions are, whether you experience success or failure.  Generally, this is said to those who have not come out well in the crapshoots of life -- if you wanted to be successful, you would have chosen to do so, because you would have chosen what you needed to do. . . and that was entirely up to you.

This is one thing you'll not find most existentialists saying.  Willing, choosing, using one's freedom in ways conducive to success may very well in many cases (though not all) be a necessary condition for success -- but it is no way a sufficient one.  In short, you can choose -- even you have to choose -- and it can all go to crap, because your choosing doesn't determine any more of reality than the portion you've got some capacity to determine.  And, that's much less -- despite whatever means we may use, technology, knowledge, connections, talents, disciplines to widen that range -- than the reality whose grips and toils we cannot avoid.

There's more to say about this -- particularly about other people, social reality, and solipsism, but I'll keep this one short and write those reflections in a follow-up post next week.


  1. simplistic pull yourself up by your bootstraps jargon

    1. One one level, yes. I'm interested, though, in not just looking at it in a over simplistic way as "simplisitic", since, like any position, it involves some assumptions -- that's what I'll be looking at in the follow-up