Existential Reflections: The Shadow Side of Human Existence (3)

In our two previous articles, we explored the ‘shadow’ side of Kierkegaard, Levinas, Heidegger, and Sartre’s philosophies. In this article, the last in the series, we look at the fundamental role emptiness or negativity plays in Watsuji Tetsuro’s analysis of human existence, before summarising some of the main themes driving this series of articles.

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Existential Reflections: The Shadow Side of Human Existence (2)

In the first article of this series, we looked at two religious thinkers; Kierkegaard and Levinas, and explored their respective notions of anxiety and separation. In this article, we turn to Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre as we continue to investigate the idea that human existence is fundamentally and unavoidably characterised by what we would usually consider unpleasant or undesirable features, features we also typically believe we can overcome or otherwise eliminate.

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Existential Reflections: The Shadow Side of Human Existence (1)

One thing that marks almost all existential thought is the acknowledgement of a ‘dark side’ to human existence. Now, this has nothing to do with psychology. You won’t find any reference in this series of articles to notions of a Freudian ‘death drive,’ an unconscious teeming with all manner of nasties looking to cause mischief, or experiments that show how easily people who aren’t normally cruel or mean can become so in certain situations (c.f. The Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments). The ‘dark side’ existential thought concerns itself with is not about behaviour, personality, or character; rather, it is the recognition that in exactly the same way that the light of the sun always and inevitably brings with it the dark of shadows, i.e. absence of light, the ‘light’ of human existence also inevitably comes with certain ‘dark’ patches, that, although we usually think of them as negative and things to be avoided, diminished, or overcome are just what it is to exist as human beings. To investigate this, this series of articles (I anticipate three) will look at some of these ‘shadow’ features of human existence through five key philosophers before wrapping up with a short section bringing their thoughts together.

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Know Thyself

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The expression “γνῶθι σεαυτόν,” or for those of you whose Greek is a little rusty, “know thyself,” was one of the Delphic maxims inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. We typically associate it with contemplation, introspective reflection, even meditation, in which we close ourselves off from the distractions of the external world, retreat inwards, and try to find out just what is in there. Who am I, really? As someone with a predilection for philosophy, I could hardly criticise reflection and contemplation (even meditation, to the extent that it remains free from suspicious metaphysical, religious, and supernatural elements), but when it comes to knowing thyself, these methods have received far too much attention. This article is an attempt to balance the scales.

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The Irreconcilability of Death

They say that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. Since I’m not much of an expert on accounting, that leaves me with death. My goal in this article, then, is to explain why I think, contrary to a lot of opinion on the subject, that our deaths are events we fundamentally cannot come to terms with. In the first section, I’ll argue that it is impossible to (truly) imagine our deaths, before arguing in the second section that the only possible attitude towards death is one of anxiety. Finally, I’ll outline a couple of possible exceptions (one more possible than the other) to my first argument.

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Concealment in Art and Life

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Is more clarity always better? Is the ideal perfect knowledge? Ought we (at least try to) banish mystery and the unknown to remnants of a bygone, pre-scientific era? Now, I’m not talking about morality here; the somewhat cliched, “Everyone is trying to figure out how to do X, without asking if we should do it” (the suggestion being that we should deliberately restrict our knowledge in certain ways), nor am I talking about that last bastion of religious and mystical types who bemoan the loss of wonder and enchantment, as if a) understanding a sunset makes it somehow less magnificent to behold, and b) ignorance is something to be cherished. Rather, in this article, we are going to discuss the unknown as it pertains to art and life (and by the term ‘life’, I mean human (i.e. conscious, self-aware) existence). Specifically, I want to ask whether there is any room left for mystery, or the unknowable, in the modern, optimistic, scientific era in which we live.

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The Being of History

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What is history? Is it just a record of a series of objective events? Do we somehow discover, or ‘unearth,’ history in these events? Is the historian just an impartial recorder of events from the past? Of course, with these questions I don’t mean to ask if history can be biased or deliberately falsified – of course it can – nor am I asking if history is necessarily incomplete because we never have perfect knowledge of what and why something happened – of course it is. In this article, I want to aim a little deeper, and see if we can’t uncover something more substantial about history by approaching the topic from a direction somewhat less travelled, but one that will hopefully leave us with a more illuminated understanding of history than the one we started with.

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Nothingness – Four Perspectives

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What is the nothing? Can we even talk about nothing meaningfully, or does the very act of making ‘nothing’ the subject of a discussion turn it into something? In this article, I take up the question of the nothing through the eyes of three philosophers (one is not Hegel, although he would have been a natural inclusion – Hegel is still a glaring blind spot in my philosophical knowledge), and one religion. All of the approaches to nothingness I look at (bar the very last one), despite being quite different and often reaching different conclusions, are equally valid, and rather than clashing in an either/or merge quite satisfyingly in a both/and.

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Time in Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty

Your Mind in Time

In this article, I plan to explore how Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty attempted to understand time in their respective magnum opuses, Being and Time and Phenomenology of Perception. Both philosophers discuss time at the end of the above treatises, where it appears as the ultimate ground for the phenomenological/ontological issues they raise in earlier chapters. However, despite this formal similarity, and the significant similarities in their philosophical projects as a whole, I have come to see their interpretations of time as quite divergent. Exactly how they differ, and the relative success of each is what will concern us in what follows.

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The Metaphysics of Da-sein

A Guide to the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger

Heidegger deliberately eschewed the term ‘consciousness’ (a strategy for which I have developed the utmost sympathy of late), and even coined his own word to describe human beings; Da-sein, literally: there-being. In Being and Time, ‘Da-sein’ didn’t really go beyond a synonym for human being, although the idea was to emphasise human being; specifically denoting the way our mode of being is considerably different from that of other objects, and even other living beings. In Heidegger’s post-B&T work, however, Da-sein gets a fuller treatment, where it is revealed as the ground, or site, for the opening up of Being.

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