Existentialism and feeling

Edie asked:

I hope you do not mind me contacting you on this email. I watch your videos on YouTube frequently, they really fascinate me and I think you have great way of explaining things. When you talk about questioning the big questions everyday like why am I here, who am I etc. relate a lot as many do. My question is, does dealing with that kind of everyday existentialism get easier with time. I almost feel crushed under the weight of these questions and I’m not even 20.

A loyal subscriber

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thank you, Edie. I like the term ‘everyday existentialism’. I’m not your average existentialist, or even a special kind of existentialist, although I see connections between my notion of being a ‘philosophizer’ and existentialist thinking. Sometimes the historical baggage that goes along with a term can impede rather than help understanding, and so it is in this case. So I would say to anyone attracted to existentialism, try to forget everything you’ve learned, or been told, and look at these questions with fresh eyes.

You feel crushed. I know what that’s like. But my question is, Why is feeling crushed the most appropriate feeling? Are feelings self-justifying? What right have I, or anyone, got to say that you ought not to feel crushed, or that you ought to feel something else?!

What do you say to someone, a white person, say, who feels uncomfortable in the company of a person of colour? There might be various explanations for this feeling, but that is all besides the point. Which is that the feeling in question is one that they must learn to get over. And there is ample evidence that this is something well within the power of a human being, indeed one of the essential ways in which we differ from non-human animals.

It is a point made by contemporary philosophers in the analytic tradition that feelings and emotions have a ‘formal object’. As a matter of logic, there are certain feelings that one cannot have. Let’s say we are walking down the street, and I point to a trash can and inform you, quite seriously, that I am proud of that trash can. ‘How can you be proud of that trash can,’ you say, when it isn’t even your trash can?’ (Let’s imagine I keep my trash can very clean and polish it regularly.) I reply, ‘You can’t tell me what I feel. I feel what I feel. And when I look at that particular trash can, I feel pride!’ The point of this story is that the question here isn’t how you can know how I feel, or even how I can know how I feel. It simply makes no sense to say that I feel proud of the trash can. As a matter of sheer logic.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop a human being from being illogical. And who’s to say whether logic is the most important thing here? And, in any case, how does this apply to existentialism?

Over the last couple of centuries, a number of claims have been made about existentialism relating to human feelings that are considered appropriate. Let me list some: ‘Fear and trembling’, ‘Anxiety’, ‘Anguish’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘Nausea’, ‘Hilarity’ (let’s not forget that!) Feeling crushed, interestingly, isn’t any of these. But let’s think of actual occasions when you feel, or have felt, crushed. A person with whom you had a serious romantic interest tells you to your face that you make them sick and they can’t stand the sight of you. Your boss gives you the sack claiming that your work has been unsatisfactory, when all the while you thought you were doing well. You have just succeeded in paying off all your bills when a letter comes informing you that you owe thousands in miscalculated income tax. I’m sure you can think of other relevant examples. What do they all have in common?

We can go though the same rigmarole with each of the terms in my list, for example, ‘anguish’. In fact, this could be a useful philosophical investigation, in the style of Wittgenstein, reminding ourselves how words are actually used. The bottom line is: we don’t know what is the appropriate thing to feel when confronting the ultimate questions. We don’t know this, even if a particular feeling overwhelms us. Think again of the racist, or the person who felt proud of a random trash can.

I can see an avenue for investigation, along broadly existentialist lines, that bypasses the question of what we know, or could conceivably come to know about the answers to ultimate questions, and instead concentrates on exploring feelings, not in the style of psychology (which would be interesting in itself) but rather in terms of the ‘logic of feeling’. The answer might surprise you: that there is no feeling that a human being has ever felt in the history of the human race that would be appropriate. The truth is, not simply that we don’t know stuff, but rather that we don’t even know how to feel about the fact that we don’t know.

This conclusion is puzzling, baffling even, but it is also liberating. You are free to let go of your seemingly ‘crushed’ feelings, and feel something else, something more positive. Like healthy curiosity, for example. Curosity is, or can be, energizing. When you are curious about one thing, there is plenty of room to be curious about other things as well. ‘Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.’ Remember that?!

What is the aim of philosophy? Is it knowledge? Of what, exactly? Or is it, as I suspect, rather to orient ourselves towards reality, to find a course of action that is most appropriate to our recognition of the ultimate questions? That is where I am at now. The answer is not obvious. I don’t even know of a philosopher who has made any significant progress in this area. Maybe, it isn’t even ‘philosophy’ but rather a novel kind of ‘theology’? Why not? Why should the term we use matter? It is not as if you needed to believe in God in order to be a theologian!

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