I completely understand your point; that for Sartre that choice would always be there, there is no ‘impossible’ in relation to living authentically, that is is just choice. However, do you feel that in the context of our very modern society that it may be harder? Do you think we may have progressed into a more inauthentic contemporary world? Or a world where authenticity maybe almost valued- in some respects? – Natasha

I’m not convinced that it’s any easier or harder to live authentically now than in any other era. Being “Real” always takes a great deal of willpower. Think of the Inquisition, or of McCarthyism, or the Cultural Revolution. Think of Janucz Korchak and his children singing on the way to the death camps (WWII). It’s hard to claim our own era is more inimical to authenticity than any other.

I do think that one peculiar feature of modern times, however, is the overwhelming prevalence of fake authenticity –where the appearance or the pursuit of what is “authentic” becomes itself a locus of artificiality. That’s probably a side effect of commercialization, wherein “realness” or the convincing illusion of it becomes a commodity that can be profitably monetized.

That said, it’s also worth noting that one can be authentic even when playing a set role –think about any truly great actor.

For these and other reasons, I personally lean away from Sartre’s authentic/bad-faith dichotomy. In my own rendering of existentialism, the key tension is between being true (authentic, as it were) to your own self-identity and being a productive member of a functional larger community –two ends which are each positive in themselves, but which continually and inevitably come into conflict.

As a Christian existentialist, I resolve this tension in a religious context: “Develop your talents, and put them to work in service to others” –a gospel-inspired synthesis of individuality and community.

In regards to Sartre and Heidegger to what extent to do you think it is existentially possible to be ‘authentic’ in our modern society? Do you think it is possible to live in contemporary society without acts of what Sartre deems ‘bad-faith’? – Natasha

From Sartre’s perspective, “is it possible” would the wrong wording. No matter the circumstances or context –i.e. modern society –it is always possible to be authentic or inauthentic. It is always a choice that you are unable to avoid.

What we might rather say is that modern society discourages and punishes authenticity –that being authentic has momentous consequences for both the individual and the surrounding society. Therefore most of us assess the consequences and choose inauthenticity. It is still, however, a choice. You can always be authentic and damn the consequences.

I was thinking about this very question recently. I currently work in a business environment –the height of an inauthentic context. One of my co-workers is leaving the job, and many people are genuinely distressed to see him go, despite the fact that he has made very little effort to win friends during his time here. I think the reason people are affected is because my coworker is an authentic personality –his real self, more or less –even in a context that does not encourage that. It certainly hasn’t made his time here easier, but it does demonstrates Sartre’s contention that authenticity is always available if you choose to embrace it.

I have existentialist leanings and see myself as a humanist. As a Christian I have had a problem reconciling these three philosophies…

…Thank you for making the attempt. I like it. My question
concerns Paul Tillich’s critic of pure existentialism, stating that
our use of language is universal and points to essentialism. He argues
that Christianity is comprises a dynamic between essentialism and
existentialism. You need both. You can’t separate the two. Is it
really possible to state existence proceeds essence when we worship a
universal Christ, historically grounded? Hope you can make sense of my
confused thoughts. – Eric

Here’s the short version of the answer: Christian existentialism must be understood as distinct from the more familiar atheist existentialism of a Sartre or Camus. I would describe it as follows: In (and only in) the context of a relationship with God through Christ, no essential constraints of law, morality or identity are absolutely binding.

So in atheist existentialism, your existential freedom is absolute, but in Christian existentialism, it is your relationship with God that is absolute, and your existential freedom stems from that relationship. You can look at is as a recasting of the classic Christian belief that servitude to Christ is freedom from the world –i.e. “My yoke is easy…”

Hope that helps. My response is original, but heavily influenced by Kierkegaard, particularly “Fear and Trembling”.

who is the philosopher that said a real philosopher are the ones that question?

You are probably thinking of Socrates. To be exact, he said that the wiser man is the one who knows he knows nothing rather than the person who thinks he knows something (but does not). However, the underlying idea is the same. Socrates is also famous for developing a method of practicing philosophy that consists only of questions without answers (the Socratic Method).

How would you, as an Existentialist yourself, respond to charges that Existentialism is too relativistic and undisciplined for Christian faith? Also, how would you reconcile Kierkegaardian radical individualism with the traditional and Biblical idea of the importance of church and fellowship?

It’s fair to say that pure existentialism is unsustainable. The burden of radical free choice quickly become mentally and emotionally overtaxing, as though one was carrying the weight of the universe on one’s shoulders. My existentialism, therefore, is anchored by Christianity at one end and humanism at the other –as Kierkegaard, godfather of existentialism, intended.

For an atheist existentialist such as Sartre or Camus, the burden of choice extends beyond the self to encompass the entire world. If some facet of my world is not as I would have it be, I bear complete and undiminishable responsibility for that fact. I have chosen it to be that way, and must choose and act differently if I wish it to change. In effect, each person is viewed as having the same position of responsibility as the deity of his own universe.

A Christian existentialist is aware, however, that the universe rests ultimately in God’s hands. This removes the insupportable burden of perfection from our shoulders (although perhaps Matthew 5:48 may indicate the opposite).

Humanism comes into play on the other end of things –in relationship to the incompatibility of radical freedom with the basic fabric of human interactions, as epitomized by concepts such as discipline and fellowship. The key Kierkegaarian move is to realize that all our human affairs are meaningless in relationship to the all-encompassing importance of our relationships with God –but then to treat those affairs as though even the most trivial among them was filled with profound meaning. This produces another paradox from a philosopher who reveled in paradox: in that he argues that the highest use of radical freedom is to invest it in conventional institutions and values such as marriage and fidelity (see Kierkegaard’s Narrative).

The Kierkegaardian life, however, only appears on its surface to be as trivial and prosaic as the lives lived by less reflective or existential figures. On the inside it is radically restructured so that even the most programmed moment within it is a free choice, and every free choice is a prayer, and every prayer leads towards a deepening of the personal relationship with God. I do think Kierkegaard erred, however, in never extending this concept beyond the individual level to encompass a community. Even the Kierkegaardian marriage is only really considered from the perspective of one of the partners; and thus as a personal act, not a communal one (perhaps explaining why Kierkegaard failed so miserably at putting the idea into practice).

If we look to the Bible, however, we can view Jesus’ transformation of the basic communal act of sharing a meal into the the sacrament of Holy Communion as a model for a communal life lived in the same mindful way as the individualist life envisioned by Kierkegaard –and the lives of the early Christians as a example of that same concept in action.  In the end, what Kierkegaard was trying to teach us is not so different from one of the central lessons of Saint Paul –that Christianity can never be lived by a rulebook. It is founded on a living relationship with God through Christ, and the discipline it provides must come from within.

what is kants compromise?

“Kant’s Compromise” is a name for the fact that the philosopher Immanuel Kant is generally viewed as creating a middle ground between the warring philosophical outlooks of (Continental) Rationalism, as epitomized by French philosopher René Descartes, and (British) Empiricism, as epitomized by Scottish philosopher David Hume. The former emphasized the mind, and the use of reason and other mental faculties as the primary way of relating to the world. The latter focused instead on sensory experience and direct evidence. Kant’s Compromise, stated roughly, is that both (sensory evidence and reason/judgment) are necessary.

Does Existentialism, in general, synthesize well with other philosophies such as Phenomenology?

The term phenomenology means the study of phenomena, where phenomena means observable experience. The chief difference between phenomenology and empiricism (which also studies observable experience) is that phenomenology tends to focus on subjective, first-person experiences of the world, whereas empiricism aspires to create an objective, third-person experience of the world.

The “existence” in Existentialism, on the other hand, comes from the idea that “existence precedes essence,” where an object’s essence is viewed as a set of indispensable defining characteristics common to all such objects. A chair, essentially speaking, is a four-legged object that people sit upon; a mirror is essentially an object that casts a reflection. The existentialist claim is that human beings have no such essence. We, as human beings, create our own self-definitions through freely willed actions. We cannot be predefined, our essences are not predetermined, but created in each new moment through the acts that compose our existence.

What the two movements have in common is a radical emphasis on the first-person perspective, which helped the Phenomenology of thinkers such as Heidegger and Husserl to become a major influence on the familiar French Existentialism of Sartre and Camus. Rather than saying that the two philosophies synthesize well with each other, therefore, it might be more accurate to say that the most familiar form of existentialism is itself a synthesis of the first-person perspective of phenomenology with the will-driven radical freedom of thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

Why do philosophers such as Nietzsche doubt everything?

I’m not sure that’s the right way to characterize Nietzsche, but skepticism –doubting things –is one of the four essential services philosophers provide to a society (the other three are mystical guidance, system-building, and practical guidance).

In general a society cannot function smoothly if all things are questioned at all times. If things –social structures, moral values, traditions, customs, and so forth– are taken for granted, however, then they can become corrupt, stagnant or obsolete. By casting a skeptical eye on things that everyone else takes for granted, a philosopher such as the one you mention clears out a society’s accumulated conceptual detritus and paves the way for progress.

Other famous skeptical philosophers include Socrates, the Zen Buddhists, Chang Tzu, Sextus Empiricus and David Hume.

explain how doubt leads descartes to postulate human essence as non material

I have the unpleasant intuition that someone may be trying to get me to complete their philosophy homework or essay question here. Nonetheless, applying the principle of charity and assuming this query is legitimate, I’ll try to give at least a brief answer:

In general, Descartes’ project is to doubt everything he possibly can, including whether the world exists as we perceive it, or is simply an illusion or deliberately deceiving simulation (as in the movie “The Matrix”). At the end of his process of extreme doubt, all he can be sure of is his famous dictum: “I think, therefore I am”. In other words, he knows he is thinking, because otherwise, he couldn’t even be doubting the things he doubts, and since something must exist in order to think, he knows that he must exist in some form, even if that form is not what he thinks it is. In other words, Descartes might be a space alien, or a creature of pure energy, or a disembodied spirit, or a mathematical abstraction, but he must be something, and that something must be able to think, since he can verify the fact of his thinking by immediate experience.

To put a quick gloss on the situation, this convinces Descartes that what he is in his most essential form is a creature that thinks, since all the material facts about himself could be other than they are without changing the central core of his identity as a thought-capable entity.

Hope that helps you with your test– oops! I mean with your sense of deep philosophical bewilderment. 🙂

How in general should I address topics in which the consequences are scary, while maintaining intellectual integrity? …Aren’t philosophers ever in the dilemma of compromising intellectual integrity versus becoming crazy?

This is a rare case where I agree with David Hume, one of my least favorite philosophers. As philosophers (or scientists) we are entrusted with the task of theorizing about the world and to trying to understand it to the best of our abilities. But we should never allow the gaps in our theories to destroy the fabric of our everyday lives.

Human comprehension is limited and subject to flaws, and our best and most sure statements about the nature of the world are doubtlessly inadequate approximations. The irreconcilable results that stem from our favored theories, therefore, are more profitably viewed as indications of problems in the theories or in our understandings of those theories, than as indications of flaws in the nature of the universe itself. In my view, intellectual integrity is more honored than endangered by an honest admission of the limitations on intellectual apprehension –with the caveat that we are then honor-bound to keep working to improve our theories to the point where they do work in the world we live in.

What does R.M. Hare mean by ought?

In general, the philosophical distinction between “is” and “ought” is between statements of plain fact, such as “the apple is red”, and statements that endorse a course of action, such as “you should eat that apple”. For R.M. Hare, moral statements –the ones that that belong in the “ought” category –needed to be accompanied by action. In other words if I say “I ought to give money to the poor” then that statement should be accompanied by my actually giving money to the poor.

Hare’s “oughts” are closely related to Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative”, which is the idea that a moral rule is a rule that I believe should be true universally, a rule that would make the world a better place if everyone followed it (including myself).

I hope this helps. I am far from being an expert on Hare, but there is a good article on him on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._M._Hare.

Can you give me the questions that philosophers ask?

That’s actually a very interesting question. It’s what might be called a “Meta”-question, a question about the questioning process. There are actually logic problems where the correct way to proceed is to ask a meta-question.

For instance…

Suppose you are faced with two brothers, one of whom always lies, and one of whom always tells the truth. Further suppose you have only one allowed question, you can only ask one brother, and you don’t know which is which. What is the proper question to ask in order to get a sure answer as to which door leads to a treasure, and which leads to doom?

Answer that meta-question properly, and you’ll get the treasure.
The right answer is to pick either brother and ask “If I asked your brother, which door would he tell me to open?” (another meta-question). Whatever answer you get, do the opposite. The reason is that you’re effectively routing the question through both brothers this way, which ensures you’ll get one truth and one lie, leaving you with a dependably wrong answer.

Unfortunately, in regards to your query, the question is more interesting than the answer. The current trend in philosophy is to ask a very narrow question, generally about some fine shade of meaning, and to explore the answer at great length. In particular, people have a tendency to seize upon some small weakness of a previous philosopher, and exploit it for the purposes of academic publishing.

However, if you want the questions historically considered by philosophers, or conversely, had you asked, what questions do I think philosophers should ask, the answers would be:

What is the meaning of life? What is the nature of existence? What does it mean to be a good person? What is truth? What is beauty? Toward what ends does the universe strive?