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Home schooling

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

This week, for some reason, all the online philosophy groups have meetings. There are four. Plus one with my college and one with my university. It was half-term last week, so I imagine all the parents decided that was a bad time to arrange to do anything for themselves. My parents would not, I'm sure, have taken that decision. They'd have expected me to entertain myself for a few hours. And besides which, the kids have been at home for two months anyway, so what difference did half-term make? Look, I make no apology for it: I don't understand modern parenting. It's maybe just as well that I did not choose to have children.


All that aside, tomorrow's meeting is about Existentialism. I've read Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe ( a gift from a very special friend!), but that was a few years ago and though I recall enjoying it and finding many of the views and concepts interesting (especially Merleau-Ponty, I seem to recall), my memories are somewhat hazy.


So I have been listening to podcasts, watching YouTube lectures and reading William Barrett's Irrational Man, which is excellent.


I thought it would be useful for me to try to consolidate some of what I have picked up over the past 36 hours (not long to learn about a philosophical school) in the light of the question we will be discussing: Is Existentialism a useful guide for living?


My doubts about this had been related to the concerns I expressed in an earlier post: I felt that the concept that a person is responsible for creating herself and that she has to become 'authentic' can lead to a) profound narcissism, b) pointless self-reflection, c) an absence of action in the world and d) a moralistic approach toward those who seem to be suffering, struggling or failing (they should have tried harder because they are responsible!)


However, the last day and a half have led me to reassess what the existentialists seem to be saying. First of all, Heidegger's concept that we are 'thrown' into the world, with no choice over when we are born or where, or who are parents are, immediately puts us in a place of contingency. There is a profound lack of choice. I think this addresses my concerns, but I don't think that this view is so generally understood by those who spout the rather simplistic demand that one must create oneself and that one is responsible for oneself.


I also like Heidegger's emphasis, as expressed in the work of Martin Hagglund, of our finitude. This human awareness of death is, according to Barrett, what drives us to philosophise, to try to make some sense of our presence in the world. Were we to believe we had eternity, there would be no need to understand. We could just be. That is why time is as important as being for Heidegger. Barrett explains that the knowledge of death gives 'weight' to our decisions about how to live, how to be. For that reasons, existence matters, what we do in our lives matters, as Hagglund also stresses. This seems important.


Indeed, in my life, as I approach 50, the idea of not doing what matters becomes an increasing cause of anxiety. Death makes life something worth living well, rather than just living through.


One of the podcasts was an interview with Skye Cleary, whose views on Existentialism I had read in How to Live a Good Life, a collection of essays about different philosophies which offered alternative ethics and metaphysics to live by. She explained that far from being a naval-gazing and solipsistic approach, Existentialism asserts that the subject cannot be free if others are not, thus encouraging social engagement. More to the point, one's choices are bound to one's actions and that is what really matters - actions may arise from beliefs, but as Cleary said, summarising a claim made by De Beauvoir, one does better to lose oneself in action rather than to seek to find oneself in introspection. Further, she explained that authenticity is not to be found within (existence precedes essence - there is no inner essence to tap into) but by a process of rational choice in active dialogue with the world.


So instead of seeing oneself as a unique and special butterfly if one can only free oneself from the chrysalis of social constraints, one should be aware of the beliefs and habits, assumptions and convictions that one holds and subject them to questioning rather than just adopting them.


And on this score, Nietszche offered guidance: he said that the pupil who follows his teacher like a disciple is showing no respect for his education. The responsibility lies in examining what one learns.


Camus, though he claimed not to be an Existentialist, interests me because I can appreciate his idea about the absurdity of existence. The meaninglessness, in a world without God, when seen sub specie aeternalis. Consider the scale of the universe, and what is my life? Less than a swallow passing through the open windows of the dining-hall. The profundity of his insight is that one needn't be distressed by that: one can be happy nonetheless. One creates meanings by virtue of one's projects, by recognising that time moves forward and one is always planning the next moment and the next, by knowing that one's own death is not an event in one's own life, it is external to it. While being in time, one projects forward and lives by one's choices and through one's projects. (I addressed this to an extent in a post on Alasdair MacIntyre's view of practices To make the situation either more precarious or more free, one knows that one's projects will not necessarily pan out - nor perhaps matter greatly in the grand scheme of things, but one chooses, freely, to commit.


This is helping me to understand Hagglund's concepts of secular faith and spiritual freedom, which I have addressed before.


Finally, I liked very much a comment made by Barrett in an interview I watched. He said that while Sartre makes this big, somewhat populist, call for freedom as the idea that one can always jump off the precipice, for Heidegger freedom was something quieter. Not this radical choice to do this or that, but more an awareness of one's ability to choose and thus to stay open. To be willing to let in the light of Truth.

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