infinite weltschmerz

politics, philosophy, and other lonely musings

Sartre, Kierkegaard, Anguish, and Psychology

Sartre has an extensive section on the anguish man feels in Existentialism is a Humanism. Recently, I had read an article regarding a study by the Florida State University psychology department that seems to shed some empirical light on this area.

Kierkegaard wrote about the concept of anxiety. In The Concept of Dread (or The Concept of Anxiety; I’ve seen it translated both ways), he gives the example of a man standing at the edge of a cliff, possessed both by the urge to move away as well as the urge to throw oneself off the edge to oblivion. In this, he wrote, we find the “dizziness of freedom.” Sartre’s anguish, motivated by our feelings of abandonment (our being “condemned to be free”) seem to be a very similar concept. Our absolute or unlimited freedom gives us the anguish of having to make a choice, and not only for ourselves, but for all of mankind. We are anguished because we possess the freedom to throw ourselves off the cliff. He writes that the sort of anguish he is concerned with is or has been “experienced by all who have borne responsibilities.” Sartre’s example is the military leader, knowing that he must make a choice of how, when, and where to attack, and by committing his forces, is responsible in some way for all that happens thereafter: the deaths of his men, and of others, and the destruction. The leader is choosing, in effect, to commit all of mankind to the choice that this was what we all ought to do in such a situation. Perhaps much the same is true when we find ourselves walking along the cliff, and come face to face, in a most personal and real way, with our anguish.

Returning to the Florida State University psychology department, a study recently published by that institution entitled “An urge to jump affirms the urge to live: an empirical examination of the high place phenomenon.” In this paper, they examine exactly the sort of urge that Kierkegaard gave in his example, and that could be applied to Sartre’s formulation of anguish as well. From the study’s abstract:

The experience of a sudden urge to jump when in a high place has been speculated to be associated with suicidal ideation; however, scant data has informed this speculation. We termed this experience the high place phenomenon (HPP) and proposed that it stems from a misinterpreted safety signal (i.e., survival instinct). The present study aimed to assess the prevalence of the HPP, to provide evidence that the phenomenon is not exclusive to suicide ideators, and to explore the role of anxiety sensitivity in the phenomenon.

Based on this study, as well as informal, anecdotal conversations I’ve personally experienced, it seems that this isn’t an unusual feeling. In fact, the study believes that it’s a empirically explainable phenomena experienced by a wide range of persons. The study concludes that “the experience of [high place phenomenon] may reflect their sensitivity to internal cues and actually affirm their will to live.” Given this then, many more people than we may have thought have experienced personal anguish over their absolute freedom, and lived to tell the tale. Surely, Sartre and Kierkegaard would be interested at their vindication.

God is dead, death is certain

To borrow an oft-used phrase of a close comrade, “God is dead, death is certain.” Camus’ project is to convince us of the ultimate futility of hoping for eternal life, divine reward, or transcendent truth. In short, we need convincing that, given God is dead (or never existed, perhaps, would be closer to Camus’ own feelings), it is only when we accept that death is certain, and do our best to live on in spite of the crushing weight of this knowledge, that we can ever have any chance of finding some meaning in the universe—even though it is meaning that will have been constructed by us, in our works and experiences, and perhaps in our relationships with others, for there is no intrinsic or inherent meaning or value “out there” in the universe.

Now, considering this from the perspective of the modern atheist movement, troubles emerge. Should it not be the case that an atheistic, humanistic, (supposedly) science- and reason-based worldview be vastly different from that of a theistic, faith- and revelation-based scripturally-grounded worldview? It has been my experience (and of course I am speaking here of my own experiences, coloured as they may be by my own biases and rationalizations with fellow atheists on campus, as well as off-campus and online) that the difference between the worldviews of the modern religious and the modern atheist are but metaphorical and substitutive. Replacing the divine and transcendent God and Christ with the natural and human (supposedly) reason and science turns out not to be the Copernican shift that it ought to be, or could be, but is merely a substitution of metaphor.

Camus writes of a such a vast, vast difference that is, when all is said and done, a vast, vast sameness when he notes in the Myth of Sisyphus, “[f]rom the abstract god of Husserl to the dazzling god of Kierkegaard the distance is not so great. Reason and the irrational lead to the same preaching.” The substitution of scientific truth for divine truth is just this sort of abstract god, set atop a new, gleaming pedestal for all to worship. Having the advantage of the more obviously concrete (or so it seems to True Believers) foundations of empiricism, it is nevertheless elevated into Faith which, contra Camus, tells us that there are objective (scientific) values in the universe, and that we can fundamentally discover them with reason; there are no limits to science as there are no limits to God and Christ: “With Husserl the reason eventually has no limits at all.”

The Powers of Persons: Communitarianism and Liberalism

Daniel Bell and John Rawls have markedly different notions of whether and how persons can evaluate and change the beliefs, values, and attachments in their lives. Neither quite fits our considered intuitions of how people act in the world. Below, both Bell and Rawls’ conceptions of the person and personal identity will be summarized, and an attempt will be made to meld both theories into one, combining the best pieces of both.

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