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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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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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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Zeno’s Paradoxes -The Stationary Arrow

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Fire an arrow from your bow, and as you watch it fly through the air there is one thing you can be certain of – that arrow is moving. Right? Wrong, at least according to 5th century BCE philosopher, and student/friend of Parmenides (yes, that Parmenides, the one who claimed there is only one thing (which he called being), and that one thing is unchanging and permanent), Zeno of Elea, who argued that the apparent motion of your arrow is an illusion. There have been a number of attempts to resolve this paradox over the centuries, until now, it is claimed by mathematicians, physicists, and even a few philosophers that Leibniz and Newton solved it with the invention of calculus. We will see that this claim is totally false, before looking at a resolution that actually works as expressed in slightly different form by three French philosophers; Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Henri Bergson, the last of whom influenced the first two and, in my opinion, has the most complete response to Zeno.

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Of Muses and Gods

Brandl's ART Articles: The Nine Arts and the Nine Muses

Imagine your spouse ran off with a houseguest, leaving you with the young child you had together. Imagine then that he/she returned, and you (somehow) agreed to take them back. Finally, imagine that many years later, your spouse relayed this tale at a dinner party you were hosting, and not only was no one shocked, the guests found the story entertaining. Even you congratulated your spouse for the “…excellent tale, my dear, and most becoming.” This unlikely sequence of events is precisely what happens in Homer’s telling of the Trojan War. The runaway spouse was Helen of Troy, the husband she left behind was King Menelaus, and the irresistible houseguest was Paris. How is it that Helen’s tale was so well-received by their guests, and why did Homer describe her in glowing terms after her supreme act of betrayal? (And what does any of this have to do with control?)

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From Heidegger to Sartre – A Brief Comparison

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Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre share much in common. In addition to the fact that both were heavily influenced by Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, while Sartre was a prisoner of war in World War II, he read Heidegger directly, finding much that would later make its way into his own writings. However, despite the similarities, their overall aims (and therefore the arc of their respective philosophies taken as a whole) were very different. This means that these shared themes and concerns sometimes appear with slightly different nuances in the two philosopher’s writings. This article will identify and briefly explore some of these ideas.

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Marx’s Alienation – An Existentialist Perspective

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In this article I want to look at what exactly the 19th century philosopher and political theorist Karl Marx had in mind when he talked about alienation, and then examine how this concept might make sense within an existentialist framework (drawing specifically on Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre).


As we use it in everyday speech, ‘alienation’ means to be isolated or separated from a group or activity. While this isn’t completely removed from the way Marx uses it, we do need to get a little more specific than this. For Marx, alienation describes the situation in which workers become separated from their humanity through forced participation in a capitalistic mode of production and that humanity then appears before the individual as something alien in nature, something barely even recognisable anymore.

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Sartre’s In-itself-for-itself and Buddhism

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Sartre’s Ontology

Sartre, in the opening chapter of his very challenging read, Being and Nothingness, cleaves existence neatly in two; what he calls being-for-itself and being-in-itself.

The in-itself is being. I don’t recall Sartre ever explicitly describing it as physical matter, but that is basically what it amounts to. The in-itself is characterised by three features: 1) it is in-itself, 2) it is what it is, and 3) it is. Respectively, these mean: 1) the in-itself is independent; i.e. it doesn’t depend on anything else to exist, 2) it doesn’t refer to itself; i.e. it isn’t self-reflexive, and 3) it is neither possible nor necessary. It isn’t necessary because it didn’t have to be, but neither is it possible because inert, non-conscious matter has no possibilities.

The for-itself, on the other hand, is consciousness. What does this mean? Consciousness is precisely not being. It is an empty, ‘massless’[1] perspective on, or relation to, being. The for-itself cannot be grasped because it is not a being, it’s not a thing, it is precisely no-thing… which is not the same as saying it is an illusion or that it doesn’t exist at all. If you find this scientifically implausible, I challenge you to describe consciousness in a way that preserves what conscious clearly is, all while staying within the confines of naturalistic materialism.

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