And here we come to the end. What is there to say? As ever, I have many questions and few answers. I have misgivings, I suppose, about Solomon’s refusal to attempt to define existentialism; I think Sartre’s concept of “essence,” the assigned cognitive construct of a thing that differs from person to person; there is no idea why one definition should need to be final, nor why an idea cannot evolve and shift from person to person, time to time, context to context.
I’d personally characterize the existentialist endeavor as exploring the problem of how to live in an uncertain world without demonstrable meaning; I think this definition robust. It ties to Camus’s question of whether living is worthwhile at all, and his demonstration of the absurdity of choice and meaning against the indifferent universe; it ties into Kierkegaard’s embrace of “objective uncertainty” with the “passion of the infinite”; it ties to de Unamuno’s recognition that action and moral value cannot truly arise from rock-solid principles; it ties, ultimately, to Sartre, who recognizes that we have no external recourse for actions, nothing that can truly tell us how to act rightly, and so we are doomed to create value and meaning through choice. This is Kierkegaard’s “leap,” which Solomon speaks of in his ninth section; we can discover no unquestionable criteria to guide choices in the world, so, in choosing, we create our criteria.
Sartre, or, perhaps, my reading of Sartre, goes farther; existence precedes essence, that is, facticity exists far before any reflective comprehension, any mental construct, fictional world posited by the mind and linked, hopefully, through metaphor, simplification, and filtering, to the infinite, meaningless morass of information that constitutes this complex world. It is filtering, selection of detail, that absorbs and dissolves the atoms and their momenta, the specific, ever-shifting arrangements, the vast empty spaces, and far more information besides contained in a common chair into the construct of “chair” as a thing. The abstract, schematic concept created by simple, limited perception alone already privileges and values some data (the chair’s semi-dense arrangement of matter, the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation it reflects, complex, ever-shifting spatial arrangements elided under such ideas as “texture” and “smell” and “weight”) over other information. Even before we reach prescription, we create meaning with the simplest act of perception-which-is-description.
In light of this, I suppose, I am either more humble, or, more likely, more cowardly than Sartre; for, as explained in previous postings, I don’t see why I should think of my actions as creating rightness or serving as a model for anyone save myself. To be sure, I am responsible for my actions’ consequences—absolutely responsible—but I have not the power nor the reason to demand that any other should act as I would act in any given situation, due to the characteristics in which we differ under our shared label of “human.” No, I will simply act, in accordance with my sentiments—socially created and experientially suggested though they doubtless are—simply because I can see no other way to act and pursue happiness. And with this, I am content.