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Fragment 160, word count: 728.

Existentialism is an expression of modern idealism as sketched in Fragment 158, The Arc of the Monad. This will be clear from a quick review of the main points of modern idealism worked out mainly in Germany in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. It features the claim that the ideality of experience is fundamental in human reality, so that the existence of certain special characteristics of ideality is undeniable. Central to those special characteristics is that ideality is always personality, all forms of ideality occur together in clusters that have the dramatic structure of a living personal “I”, subject of a personal drama which is an individual’s embodied life in the world. The existence of ideas is the existence of ordinary thinking agents. The only reality we can possibly experience is completely structured as and by ideas constituting the interiority of personal experience (Leibniz, Fichte). Ideality is willful becoming, always questioning, learning, and creating, the exact opposite of being. What this amounts to is that personality is not a thing of nature, but, as point and arc of spontaneous creation (Sartre’s existence without essence), it stands outside nature and transcends nature. The supra-actual creative power of ideality is not in Platonic heaven or in gods and demons, but in ordinary personalities. How things matter in the world does not depend on eternal ideas in the mind of a deity nor in a Platonic heaven where ideas are master molds for material beings. It depends only and entirely on the occurrence of ideas in the living of individually embodied persons. Individuals cannot claim to be creative masters of nature at large, but each person creates a personal orientation and future-directed bearing, a life of possibilities, impossibilities, and probabilities in an interiority of non-actuality, which is then actually imposed on brute nature with variable success, and shared by building interconnections with other ordinary persons.

Existentialism inhabits experience as lived by a fully elaborated personality, what Fichte called an “I”. Heidegger’s dasein is a phenomenology of the interiority of an “I”, the monad from Leibniz/ Kant/ Fichte. The focus on freedom, decision, (Kierkegaard, Sartre) at the level of the living individual expresses the central theme of modern idealism that ideality is a transcendence, a transcendence with the drama of life-being-created moment by moment between misery and ecstasy, that is, with caring, at its core. Existentialists expanded on the drama of the life of the “I”, the everydayness of being in the world, but also the profound drama of freedom: dread, anxiety, sense of absurdity, despair, fear and trembling, and ecstasy (Nietzsche). This is a portrait of the interiority of the life of the “I” contributing to modern idealism. Modern idealism provides the conceptual cluster that encompasses freedom by conceiving personality/ humanity as ideality, something not of nature. The established conceptual cluster for nature, from scientific materialism, is antithetical to freedom, a failure of science that is crucially detrimental for politics. Existentialism and phenomenology (a technique of de-culturing) lie in the developmental arc of essentially Protestant idealism, notwithstanding that Edmund Husserl was Jewish and Franz Brentano, Heidegger, and Sartre were variably Catholic.

Nobody was Ready for Modern Idealism

As a distinctly European cultural development, modern idealism (including existentialism) was feared and loather by bearers of the ascendent culture of the USA after World War II, an ideology of national exceptionalism grown from a fresh cultural memory of cowboy-style frontier freedom and colonization, expressed now in patriotic militarism in support of the capitalist assertion of the divine rights of property. Already in the nineteenth century, with the world-shaking adventurism of Napoleon following the upheavals of the French Revolution (1789-99), combined with fervour for the explaining power of empirical observation, it pleased people to generalize from their historical moment to the idea that it is exceptional great men such as Napoleon, romantic heroes above all laws, who create history, art, culture, and civilization (eventually), with regrettable but unavoidable death, destruction, and romantic mayhem along the way. Such people had to be admired, it was thought by the cognoscenti, and given a chance to work their will. This romanticism became fundamental to the American myth-system. Such a cultural environment was lethally inhospitable to modern idealism focused as it was on the unexceptional universal individual, and so the idealism was academically marginalized and left unnamed.

Embedded Links in order of appearance:

Fragment 158, January 9, 2020, The Arc of the Monad (word count: 803)

Fragment 124, February 19, 2018, The World that Doesn’t Matter (word count: 750)

Fragment 153, September 28, 2019, De-Culturing (word count: 458)

Fragment 123, February 8, 2018, Brentano’s Gift (word count: 999)

Fragment 143, March 21, 2019, Frontier Freedom (word count: 447)

Copyright © 2020 Sandy MacDonald.