June 2014


Written by Tom McGuire

Of all the philosophical jargon which finds its way into everyday lexicon, few words roll off the tongue like existential. Thus, it is common to hear about someone's existential crisis, anguish or despair. The term has an air of mystery about it, like the Loch Ness monster. If an ordinary crisis seems too mundane, why not make it an existential one? That sounds far more chic.

As Stuart Hanscomb on page 15 of this issue, puts it, existentialism is like the 'punk rock' of philosophy. It is weirdly fashionable. People feel comfortable personalising it and claiming it as their own. But if you are curious to know a bit more about what those who came up with the phrase actually meant, there is plenty of material in this issue to help you out. I think that philosophers are in their most difficult terrain when they try to speak about moods, feelings and emotions. These are so subjective, that it is easy to miss the point of what the other person is trying to convey. There is a sense in which each person speaks their own language, where we match up words to our own unique set of experiences and memories. Luckily, I have had very few traumatic events take place in my life so the word 'trauma' will probably trigger less intense emotions than someone who has had a much rougher ride.

The poet has an easier time than the philosopher in expressing the more subtle, emotional aspects of life. Or at least, poetry has a sweeter taste.

Somehow a poem can drive deeper into our hearts, delivering its message in a way that doesn't necessitate thinking and analysing. When Keats says 'a thing of beauty is a joy forever', he doesn't argue the point with a logical syllogism - he just allows the sentiment to present itself to us in a way that can be directly appreciated. A philosopher who tries to express the way people feel, and especially the way philosophers feel, faces a more difficult task.

The philosopher typically tries to lay out a very precise, methodical outline of the subject matter, and this can be hard to digest. When it comes to human experience, what is sometimes called the 'phenomenal' realm, most people are too busy experiencing life to sit back and painstakingly think about what's happening to them in a detached fashion. To understand what authors like Heidegger are trying to say requires stretching one's mind in quite a different direction than what the normal state of everyday busyness will allow.

One of the most accessible insights found in existentialism is the knowledge of how important our imminent death is to self-awareness. It is an old adage that only humans are capable of being philosophical because, apparently, we are the only species truly aware of being mortal. It is unsettling to reflect on how the term of our earthly existence is limited and its aftermath uncertain. A Buddhist scholar once remarked that he always keeps a skull on his desk to remind him of this fact. I once visited a Franciscan monastery where the bones of long-deceased monks were kept in a special room on display, for much the same purpose.

Travelling rapidly around the world, as I have been doing recently, is one of those experiences that allows you to go beyond the mundane and experience life in a fresh new way. The traveller is always a stranger, encountering things that are different and surprising. The act of staying in one place, being bound to a single locality, means we tend to build up a structure of familiarity that often keeps us stuck in a particular pattern.

Travelling breaks this pattern and invites a flood of new experiences to come hurtling in. To the extent that my 'self' consists of what I experience, this process really does reshape the self into something different. When people come back from overseas and claim that it made them into a new person, this is probably what they mean.

In moving constantly around the sense of place, of belonging, is being built up a little bit and then shattered each time one moves on. Because so much of what we call our 'self' is identified with what is around us, a constant change in outer circumstances calls into question the very nature of who we are. Although disorientating, it can also inspire a self-search which is very beneficial.

Partly what the existentialists seem to be getting at is that human life is, to a great extent, what we make of it. That gives each of us tremendous power but also a daunting level of responsibility. You will see in this issue how angst and anxiety for existentialists is not just the usual kind of worries that inhabit everyday life, but related to awareness about the possibilities we have to shape our world (at least, the part of it called 'me') and the feeling of burden this can place upon our shoulders. However, this can also be a positive thing.

Rather than cruising through life on autopilot and being completely consumed with all the details, one can step back from the ordinary flow of experiences; to recognise that even if our finite existence is hurtling towards an end from which there is no escape, at least we can choose where to steer it in the meantime.