The actor and the spectator

Rondle asked:

Can you explain to me the meaning of this “Existentialist thinkers attempt to philosophize from the standpoint of an actor rather than from that of a spectator” and please elaborate thank you.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The notion that ‘philosophizing from the standpoint of an actor rather than that of a spectator’ is something peculiar to existentialist thinkers is simply wrong. Just to give one example, there’s a book written by Lewis White Beck Actor and the Spectator (The Ernst Cassirer lectures, Yale 1975) which is not in the existentialist tradition. In his lectures, Beck offers a novel solution to the free will problem intended for an audience of analytic philosophers.

The British philosopher John Macmurray has been called the ‘English existentialist’ for his proposal, in The Self as Agent (Faber 1957) that Descartes’ ‘I think’ should be replaced by ‘I do’ — from which it allegedly follows that the form of a metaphysical theory should be a ‘metaphysic of action’ rather than a Kantian ‘metaphysic of experience’. However, the notion that Macmurray was an existentialist (alongside Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre) seems to me based purely on the erroneous notion just mentioned.

One of the most important philosophers in the analytic tradition, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his later philosophy makes the strongest case for the primacy of the agent. An isolated spectator could never learn or understand a language. In order for there to be linguistic rules, there have to be individuals following a ‘practice’ embedded in a ‘form of life’. Our culture, our nature are inextricably involved in our ability to communicate with one another.

So what is peculiar to existentialist thinking that has to do with being an ‘actor’? I think there is a core idea, which has to do with the relationship between philosophy and the sciences. As an analytic philosopher, you can take on board the idea that human beings are essentially agents. For example, there are many working in the field of Artificial Intelligence who accept that a genuinely ‘intelligent’ machine would have to have a sense of its own identity as an agent in the world, interacting with other agents. To be an agent involves having a body that enables you to act in ways other than merely emitting sounds or printout or characters on a screen.

One element still missing from this picture is the sense that, as agents, you and I are more than just objects of scientific inquiry by other agents. For example, it is a widely accepted scientific fact that all living creatures eventually die. However, for an existentialist thinker (Heidegger, for example, or Levinas) our attitude towards our own eventual demise is of paramount importance. The question of what it means to ‘be in a world’ is not, and never will be, a question for science. To ‘philosophize from the standpoint of an actor’ in this sense, is to grasp the problem of what this means for my own existence rather than merely the existence of human beings generally. This is the challenge of authenticity which cannot be met simply by detached philosophic or scientific ‘understanding’.


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