Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Existentialism and Existence


Existentialism and Existence

(Prepared for u3a Philosophy group meeting on 23rd Feb 2012)


The term Existentialism coined by Sartre. Adopted and given meaning by Sartre, Simone de Beauvoire, Camus and others as a cultural phenomenon or social outlook as much as a philosophy in the strict sense.


Descartes (1596-1650)

Sartre claimed that the fundamental truth of existentialism is in Descartes formula, "I think; therefore, I exist." The existential philosophy is concerned with the personal "commitment" of this unique existing individual in the "human situation."

Kierkegaard (1815-1850)

Who was searching for the meaning of life (his existence) which question sort of supposes a voice from on high saying "your purpose is to exist". He wrote lucidly about Abraham who understood God to tell him to kill Isaac, even though that was surprising. This philosophy is 'Anti-Rational'

Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Agreed that the 'crowd is 'untruth'. Only your own thoughts are thoughts. Art (in particular) shows an absolute standard: a work must be judged as istelf, not as an instance of a genus.

Husserl (1859-1938)

Phenomenology. Accused of Psychologism by Frege (that 2+2=4 only because we think it does). Defended himself against that. Influenced by Brentano (Intentional existence; I want an apple, I admire a picture; that the stuff in our heads is the product of a mental intention); invented Phenomenology and deveoloped that school including Heidegger as pupil. Method of phenomenological reduction (bracketing) by which a person may come to know directly an essence. (Seeing a horse qualifies as an experience whether or not it is a real horse or a dream, or an illusion.) From the Phenomenological standpoint, the object ceases to be something simply "external" and providing indicators about what it is, but becomes a grouping of perceptual aspects that hang together under the idea of a particular object or essence. The notion of objects as real is not abolished by phenomenology, but "bracketed" as a way in which we regard objects instead of a feature that inheres in an object's essence founded in the relation between the object and the perceiver. In order to better understand the world of appearances and objects, phenomenology attempts to identify the invariant features of how objects are perceived and relegates attributions of reality to a subordinate role as just something we perceive (or an assumption underlying how we perceive objects).

Heidegger (1889-1976) 

Pupil of Husserl at Freigurg. Deliberatly obscure. His initial question was "what is the meaning of being" , which he pursued using Husserl's method of phenomenology. I think Heidegger (in Being & Time) is definitely adopting 'Psychologism' (Heidegger says the sense of being precedes any notions of how any particular being exists; it is pre-conceptual, non-propositional, and hence pre-scientific.) Heidegger asks: what is the being that will give access to the question of the meaning of Being? Heidegger's answer is that it can only be that being for whom the question of Being is important, the being for whom Being matters; therefore a human being.

Sartre (1905-1980)

*  No formal description of EXISTENCE can be given; it is existence itself that defines it.

*  Existence precedes essence. A paperknife was created to cut paper; not so was a man created to 'be a man'. The existence of an individual itself create the meaning or purpose. This denies both nature and nurture as causitive. 

*  Great prankster. Anti-rational. Rebel. Anti-bourgeois conformism. No doubt revelled in the mystique of the intellectual.



(See also http://cawstein.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/existence.html )

There seems to be something very ordinary about created matter; and something very extraordinary about creating matter out of nothing. But before we go into that, let us admit that we do not really know what we mean by 'exist' and 'existence'. Not only do we not understand 'existence' and 'non-existence'; we also find that our everyday vocabulary is inadequate to discuss the matter.

The 'man in the street', will understand well enough statements like ÒI existÓ and ÒThe unicorn does not existÓ (as it is an imaginary beast). But when we think about it, we find that we do not know anything that does not exist, except for imaginary things like the unicorn, or the centaur; or impossible thing like a square triangle. If a thing 'does not exist' we find it impossible to observe, impossible to study. All the things we know anything about belong to the category of things that do exist. Furthermore, we know nothing about how an object can move from non-existing to existing. To understand that would be to understand creation.

However, our problems go further than not understanding the physics of creation. I believe most of us don't even understand the words 'exist' and 'existence', and how to use them. Not that we often discuss existence, and when we do it seems it is only the existence or non-existence of God that is in debate. We 'lay' people do not spend time discussing the existence or otherwise of centaurs, or the dodo, or 'the integers between two and three'; or whether 'exists' is a predicate; that is all left to philosophers. On the other hand, the layman does seem to be concerned about the existence or otherwise of God. Books are written on the subject and advertisements placed at considerable expense in prominent places by concerned citizens, both for and against.

Let us take, as an example, a knot tied in a piece of string. Let us ask: does the piece of string exist?; to which we certainly answer 'yes'. Then let us ask: does the knot in the string exist? The existence of the knot is clearly of a different type. I would like to say that the knot does not itself 'exist'(as a primary substance); it presents itself to my senses as a property, or form, of the string on which it is dependent. If we were to adopt such a narrowed application of the word existence (call it 'primary existence' if you like) we would be able to say that existence entails finite mass, and extension in space and time. We would confidently say that the string exists, but the knot does not exist, for if you untie the knot there is no change in mass. 

Philosophers have discussed existence, but only add to the confusion, for there are so many different views. Our intuitive view (above) is very much the same as that of Aristotle, who came to a similar conclusion when he considered the matter of existence. He regarded 'substances' as basic. 'Substances' exist independently. Other entities such as qualities, quantities, relations, etc., all inhere in something or are said of something. They do not exist independently. Red cannot be said to exist; you can say a red rag exist, but that is because the rag exists; redness is a property of the rag. Kindness does not exist, except as a property of a person. Nor does 'three' exist; it is a concept that needs something else to embody it (three gold rings, for example). It is apparent already that the word 'exist' is inadequate to distinguish the many types of 'object', 'thing', 'concept', or 'word' we wish to talk about, and of which we wish to distinguish the many types of existence, or reality, or meaningfulness that these objects exemplify.


Rather similar to our problems with the concept of existence (and bound up with it) are problems with the concept 'object'. How shall we talk about the entities (objects, things, etc) that are not substances, and do not have primary (i.e. independent) existence? In the late nineteenth century C.S. Peirce used the term 'object' very widely; thus he said ÒBy an object, I mean anything that we can think, i.e. anything we can talk about.Ó[CS Peirce, ÒReflections on Real and Unreal ObjectsÓ, MS 966]. He thus included properties, relations, abstract concepts, numbers, universals. (He may even have included contradictions and impossible concepts, for we can talk about square circles, though we cannot perhaps think about them.) We can then subdivide Peirce Objects into special types, and see if we think it appropriate to ascribe to them existence (See Table).


Type of object



Peirce Objects

Anything that we can talk about; things, properties, abstractions, universals (contradictions?)

Is anything excluded? Perhaps contradictions (square triangles; integers between 2 and 3)

Aristotle Objects

Anything having properties and relations, (e.g. things, but also numbers, emotions)

Properties and relations (redness, superiority, evenness [as of the number 2])

Frege Objects

Singular nouns (A horse, a theory)

Concepts (A mammal)

Real Objects

Things located in space and time including mind, life etc

Imaginary, mythical, fictional, abstracts, numbers, ideas, etc

Material objects (existent objects)

Things possessing mass and existing in space and time (e.g. atoms, and electrons )

Life, mind

Abstract objects

Platonic forms (e.g. the idea of a table)

Real objects

Imaginary objects

Centaur, golden mountain

Material objects


Alexius Meinong, more or less contemporaneously with Charles Peirce, developed his own Theory of Objects (Gegenstandstheorie, 1904) and introduced two useful words. He realized that he could think about objects that did not exist – like a golden mountain or a centaur. He therefore suggested that only material objects exist (in a material and temporal sense), but that concepts, numbers, imaginary objects, etc. subsist. For his third category, of impossible concepts (such as square circles, or the integers lying between 2 and 3, etc), he coined the verb to absist).



[See http://www.dooy.salford.ac.uk/existence.html; or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexius_Meinong]

 (The string, of course, has many properties besides the knot; and it is tempting to make another point in passing. The string could be long, white, or hairy; that is to say, having properties that are visible and can therefore be checked by a second observer. But it can also be mine, valued or feared; i.e. having properties ascribed to it that are not visible and cannot be objectively checked, though their origins in my head can be repeatedly ascertained. We tend to talk of the former type of property as 'objective', and the latter type as 'subjective'.)


L. Cawstein

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