That’s a mouthful isn’t it? I’ve been trying for some days now to read some existentialist philosophical theory, which is very much in fashion these days, to see if it makes any more sense to me now than it did when I tried it in my youth, when I had no academic education to guide me. I was keen to understand back then, but could make neither head nor tail of it due to the language used, much to my disappointment. Reading some of this theory now, is also reminding me of the time I later spent trying to fathom some literary theory and art theory when I was doing my OU degree later in life, where I had to sit with a dictionary by my side to learn a new whole vocabulary that was being used by the professorial academics who wrote the papers and essays I was attempting to understand. These essays were riddled with words like this:
idiomatic, axiomatic, paradigm, espouse, eschew, expound, exposition, epistemological, phenomenological, semiotics, hermeneutics, dialectic, a priori, empirical, substantive, semantics, causality, ontological, teleological, tautology, signifiers and signified, posits, didactic, protean, exigencies, the absolute, occidental, diachronic, synchronic, qualitatively, quantitatively, philological, structuralism, deconstruction, exegetical, Zeitgeist, inculcation, solecism, disquisition, praxis, rubric, corollary, antithetical…and that bloke Hegel doesn’t half get about!
(There are admittedly some gorgeous sounding words here and a favourite phrase I’ve picked up is ‘epistemological doubt’ (doubting of a particular theory of knowledge system)
Well, I improved my understanding up to a point, but I very much felt that this language was a means to divide people, even alienate people, by assuming that only those who had a certain level of education and study in their chosen field would have the means to understand, as opposed to those who didn’t. And that those that didn’t shouldn’t be reading this material in the first place. I also decided that this kind of language was written by critics for other critics within academia, as well as to justify their elevated positions and their work. No wonder there are very short introduction guides published to give students a scaled-down and interpreted simplification of specialist theory and their terms. But of course it’s not always about the chosen words, it can be how they are put together syntactically, as you will find below.
Anyway, I thought I’d do a wee dialogue of my own during some reading. An inner dialectic you might say ;>) between my left brain inner critic, determined to analyse and get it right, and my curious creative right brain wanting to be pleasantly enlightened – as I’ve been having a bit of an inner argument during some reading of this existential philosophy, which just happens to be some Kierkegaard.
(The Kierkegaard text I’m reading in the dialogue is in quotes. The left brain and right brain are L and R)
‘Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self?…
L and R Okay so far. Got it!
‘The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but [consists in the fact] that the relation relates itself to its own self.’
R Is this for real? No-one could understand this, could they? And this is only the beginning of this essay! What’s the rest going to be like?
L Just bear with it. Read it again –
R Are you kidding? This is nonsense!
L Okay, move on then!
‘Man in a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short it is a synthesis’.
L and R Yeah, I suppose so…but the it is a bit confusing
‘A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not a self.’
R Here we go again! This is ridiculous!
L Just keep reading. Maybe it will start making some sense. This guy was supposed to be good at psychology. We like psychology.
So reading a bit further on: ‘Whence then comes despair?’
R and L Lovely! We’re onto despair now. That’s more like it. Some good old existential angst to get stuck into…hurrah! (yes, a but weird, but what can I say?)
‘From the relation wherein the synthesis relates itself to itself, in that God –‘
L and R God – where does God come into this? I didn’t think existentialists believed in God. I though they believed life was essentially meaningless – you know, ‘absurd’ as they keep banging on about, and that you have to create your own meaning.
‘In that God who made man a relationship lets this go as it were out of His hand, that is, in the fact that the relation relates itself to itself. And herein, in the fact that the relation is spirit, is the self, consists the responsibility under which all despair lies, and so lies every instant it exists, however much and however ingeniously the despairer, deceiving himself and others, may talk of his despair as a misfortune which has befallen him, with a confusion of things different, as is the case of vertigo aforementioned, with which, though it is qualitatively different, despair has much in common, since vertigo is under the rubric soul what despair is under the rubric spirit, and is pregnant with analogies to despair.’
R And I’m in acute spiritual despair right now of ever making any sense of this!
L Yeah, I know , I can’t say I blame you
R What should we do?
L Oh we’ll just read the blasted thing because then we’ve done it, and maybe there’ll be something that turns up that we do understand…
‘A despairing man is in despair over something…’
L and R Well, like, obviously!
‘So to despair over something is not yet proper despair. It is the beginning, or it is as the physician says of a sickness that it has not yet declared itself…’
L and R Yawn
‘The next step is the declared despair, despair over oneself. A young girl is in despair over love…’
L Woops. We nearly fell asleep there…
L You mean you’ve had enough?
R Well, haven’t you?
L I suppose logically, reading this is a good way of getting off to sleep…
L It’s being doing it for the last few nights, hasn’t it?
R Exactly! It’s quite constructive really – you like constructive.
L Yes, I do. And we can pick it up tomorrow night?
R Yes, of course, we’re not giving up.
L No, we’re not giving up. And we mustn’t be too hard on Kierkegaard or too hard on ourselves.
L We mustn’t despair
R Oh God, no!
The book is cast aside and L and R go to sleep….
(PS My apologies to you, Kierkegaard, for being the butt of my humour. It happened to be you, but could have been one of many, and I will finish you, I promise!
(pic courtesy of pixabay)