Existentialism and human nature
Motto: “existence precedes essence
nurture precedes nature
subjective precedes objective
facticity precedes transcendence”
There is no author, these things are just there.
The center of the existentialist philosophy is the denial of human nature. Sartre says: “…man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world- and defines himself afterwards. If a man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it……he is what he wills.” (Being and Nothingness, p. 55) This statement is true to their, existentialists, absurd colors because it is almost impossible to write anything which would be not about human nature. Everything written, is written by a human ( not counting- pardon the perfidious pleasure- the scriptures composed by gods), and thus it reflects the human experience, therefore it informs us about our, human, nature. Paradoxically the existentialists, while denying human nature’s very existence have something important to add to the dispute about it. And there is an illustrious list of thinkers writing about human nature- explicitly.
Darwin: “ The Descent of Man”
Kenner: “The Tangled Wing”
E.O. Wilson “On Human Nature”
Teilhard De Chardin “The Future of Man”
Milne “ Winnie the Pooh” etc, etc.
The world we read about in “Man’s search for meaning” is bad, very bad. It is the world where most of the people forfeit their ability to “will” themselves into the authentic beings. Instead, they gave to the powers and fears and desires of the demoralised society. Only a few tried to be free, even fewer survived the attempt. But Frankl believes that this attempt, however hopeless, changes everything. It makes suffering, even death, meaningful. It gives a deep insight into the idea of human nature. It proposes the revolutionary worldview in which the subjective world of an individual has all important qualities of freedom, or the lack thereof, of authenticity, meaning and even happiness.
It’s almost like we need to talk about the two human natures: the one dictated by the survival and fear- the existence of which the existentialists deny- and the second one, subjective and transcendent, seen as a possibility of freedom and authenticity. The human nature seen as a capacity, the chance, to live free and authentic life, no matter how horrible or cripplingly comfortable are the circumstances and facticity.
I think De Beauvoir would like this concept. This subjective world of human nature would have no constraints of traditional rationality and sexism, would be naturally authentic with all the ambiguity related to rich and wise emotional feminine.
Sartre would be also delighted. The subjective world is being created from moment to moment as we live our lives. There is no other way like seeing it as being “willed” into reality by the authentic action of the man! This vision is almost too optimistic for the Eeyore-like existentialist. The “objective “ human nature can be easily thrown into the trash. It would represent human malfunction, immaturity or ignorance. All the vices, cruelty and mistakes, all too human, would have to be moved from the top shelf of human attributes to the garbage can of the failure to be really human.
The mixture of the emotional life and rational life is pretty normal in our subjective world.
First person philosophy galore, we can even be scientific in the most modern way with the full attention being paid to the observer, not only to the observed, and we can explore human experience as equally valid as human “objective” knowledge. And this would make the phenomenologists like Varela and Thompson rejoice.
And now I am going to bring another supporter, the one from the unexpected domain.
His name is Darwin. Contrary to the popular belief, to have subjective world one do not have to have consciousness. Actually the opposite is true. We know now that the consciousness is not all or nothing concept anymore,( “ God giveth it to a man, maybe some to a woman, but not to the beast”). On the evolutionary pyramid, the more consciousness the animal has, the more capacity for the reflective thinking it possesses and the more ability it has to split its world into subjective and objective. Simple organisms with their primitive brains lead instinctive lives organised around survival and primitive emotions of fear, pain and pleasure. They have only subjective worlds. The same is true of babies, they live mostly by the emotions and feelings, a lot of activities in the old brain, not much of the prefrontal cortex.
It is what we can learn from the existentialists about human nature, it is what other famous guys, mentioned earlier, missed. If one attempts to be authentic and ethical, one has to direct one’s attention to the personal subjective world. This is the one which one builds from the scratch since birth until one dies. It is made of the subjective worlds of your ancestors via the worlds of your mom and dad, your teachers and friends and lovers… Forget the notion that because it is subjective it is ephemeral and elusive, like a mood. It is always new and shifting, but it is real and solid and all important. Like the subjective human nature, the nature of constantly re-creating yourself of hope and curiosity and relationship.
And now, there are the last two rabbits in my hat. The first: if we find the subjective human nature so useful and hopeful we can also talk more about subjective and personal values, subjective happiness, subjective meaning of life etc, etc.. And then, we can get tired of the “subjective” adjective and drop it, omit it, forget about it…..
The last rabbit is so big that it is almost impossible to pull off: can then the other, good for nothing, objective human nature, objective world, objective big Universe— disappear?