Aug 26, 2014

Freedom, Choice, and Success: What Is The Existentialist Stance? (part 2)

Revisiting a quite useful discussion that arose during my July lecture on Franz Kafka (in the Glimpses of Existence series hosted by the Kingston Library), I'd like now to dig a bit more deeply into the distinction I made between genuine existentialist and not-really existentialist takes on freedom, choice, and the outcomes -- in success or failure -- of our decisions and commitments.

One might balk at my uses of terms like "genuine" and "not-really" here to distinguish between real and fake existentialists -- after all, isn't it at the core of existentialist philosophy that one gets to decide things for oneself?  So, by extension, who am I to say that certain interpretations of themes or doctrines, claiming to represent existentialism, are less true or valid than others?  My simple retort to that is simply to throw back a paradox -- who then is the critic to tell me that I'm not equally free to say that some people have got it right and others wrong.

But relativist-gotcha is a pretty stale pastime -- and there's a better response.  If "existentialist" is to mean anything substantive, while not confining itself to slavish repetition of tropes of its key authors and texts, it does have to return to them continually as sources upon which to draw for inspiration and orientation.  And, at least on this issue of the relation between a person's radical freedom and the worldly success of their projects and choices, there is both a wealth of clearly articulated discussions by the members of the movement and a rough consensus between them.

To review briefly, the position that came in for criticism is an instance of what we might call "ontological bootstrapping," or the philosophical equivalent of prosperity theology.  The general idea runs like this:  Existentialists hold that human beings are radically free, some of them pushing that so far that they declare that (as opposed to other animals, or pieces of technology) the human being has no essence or nature and instead has to choose what his or her essence is.

A person exists, to be sure, within an environment, a world of objects, a cultural and historical world formed by other people's choices and actions -- but what that person makes of the location, the position, the opportunities, the chances he or she has is up to that person.  And each person thus bears responsibility for what he or she does with that freedom -- which includes the capacity to remake oneself into a different person.

So far, so good, actually -- so where do things go wrong?  In going a bit further and saying that our success or failure is entirely, or even essentially, up to us -- in relation to the rest of reality.  The pseudo-existentialist says:  you have the capacity to decide your own fate -- meaning: by your own choices and actions, if you just will or choose or desire intensely, consistently, single-mindedly enough, you can conform the rest of reality (natural, technological, historical, cultural) to your own choice or decision.

Success within the world is then, from that perspective, entirely up to oneself -- and likewise one's failures too.  If you're not rich, if you don't have a good position or prospects, if you're unattractive or undesired, if . . .  if. . .  if. . .  well, that's your own fault.  After all, you're radically free, no less so than the pantheon of the successful one can parade forth.  So, if you're a failure, or even less than astoundingly successful, it's nobody's fault -- except yours.

There's a number of things wrong with this, but I'll confine myself to noting just one problematic, which I think is particularly well illustrated by many of Franz Kafka's stories -- particularly, though not exclusively, The Trial.  Before that, though, let me mention some corresponding ideas from just a few other existentialist thinkers.

Theistic existentialists, like Kierkegaard, Shestov, and Marcel, will already see significant problems with this notion that the human being, through the free use of his or her will, can coerce reality into some configuration counting as "success," since there is also radical freedom on the part on the part of the divine, an entire dimension, gracious and mysterious, permeating the phenomenal, seemingly secular word and age.

But, atheist existentialists as well have no illusions that our freedom, besides offering us choice and imposing on us responsibility, affords such quasi-divine capacity to shape reality.  Camus sees the very essential structure of the absurd residing in the disconnect, the "divorce" between our desires and reasonings on one side and the irrational world on the other.  De Beauvoir goes further than Sartre in her examinations of what "facticity", the set of conditions and contents the world continually imposes upon us, entails, arguing that the marginalized, the exploited and oppressed, do not possess the same degree of freedom and responsibility than those in more privileged positions.

What Kafka reveals to us, in a narrative framework, thus by example and analogy, in the case and character of Joseph K. -- who finds himself accused of a crime and progressively more enmeshed within the workings of the Law as The Trial proceeds -- is a alienating world, mysterious but always susceptible of some clarifications.  It is one in which K. is free, chooses, and acts, but finds his projects miscarrying over and over.  And it is not simply because there is some shadowy, all-powerful, totalitarian system of the Law stymieing his efforts at every point.

Instead, it turns out to be a matter of other people -- who are also free and at the same time constrained by circumstances, which are in turn often enough conditioned by, or even the products of yet other people's use of freedom.  Other people are not necessarily hell, as Sartre might have us believe, but their existence as free, undetermined, self-determining beings does intersect, and often condition or conflict with our own choices, actions, projects.  Often without meaning to, the uses they make of their own capacities to decide plays some part in our own successes and failures.

The existentialist situation is not really one of an individual versus the world, let alone versus the System -- but a more complicated one of an individual in a world compose of and compromised by others who are both like and unlike oneself.  The pseudo-existentialist, as I pointed out in the discussion, is really a type of solipsist.  Other people exist for that person, but not really. . . To acknowledge the Other, or the world of others, is to live in the anguish for which solipsism provides a soothing but illusory remedy.  And, though the act of living in that anguish often has to be repeated, and often is merely implicit, that is what genuine existentialists do.


  1. Following your video on Franz Kafka, I decided to read 'The Trial', being especially interested in the story of the door-keeper. However, the chapter that stands out to me the most and has left we with the most questions is the one entitled 'The Whipper'. I realize the book was not ultimately completed by Kafka, but compiled posthumously, so that could contribute to the outcome, but I feel the chapter to be so bizarre and in contrast to the rest of the book. At first I thought maybe K. was delusional, and that what he was experiencing was not really happening. Then I considered maybe the whole story was intended to have a sort-of surreal bent, but the rest of the book, though containing some other rather strange events, doesn't seem to match-up to the weirdness of that situation.

    Could you perhaps shed some light on this chapter, Dr Sadler. I realize it may not relate to the issue of freedom (or perhaps it does?), but I would appreciate the insight. What do you think Kafka intended with this piece? Do you agree that it fits in rather strangely with the rest of the book? Have other commentators offered interpretations of the chapter? Thank you.

    1. For me, it fits fine into the rest of the Trial -- K. gets to see some of the inner workings of things, of the human mechanism of the Law.

  2. Yes to acknowledge the Other is indeed to to properly acknowledge reality, which the pseudo- e is not doing............ but to withdraw from reality it is still to acknowledge is is solipsism but not an aggressive / ignorant sort determined to 'stamp' let us say itself on the world [there maybe a bit of me in the former type, some may disagree altho there are not many who know the subject who writes this]
    And so the most obvious objection to "radical freedom" is presented in terms of material environments and their restrictive effects on choice, simply b/c it seems obvious [amply catered for by you in the last 2 paras] and this is what I nearly shouted out when you wrote about the objection of the theist existentialists...'what about other people?' As is the idea of determining one ' s essence even more problematic with Qs of psychology decided according to some by very early ages of two or three...but given emotional stability, how does one become aware of modes of material self improvement [at a basic level] or texts [and all the potentials they represent] if the Other simply want to send their daughters / sons down the mines at the age of 10 [Germinal / Zola] ....aah but what is the Other? the parents? the factory owner? " the Man" Very interesting and I see now the other level [other levels] that you mentioned fact a piece of writing articulating some of the paradoxes encountered in engaging with bootstrap ideology , often politically conservative AND LIFE generally.