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Notes on Collective Existentialism (Part 1)

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  • wbakervt
    A good friend of mine has been studying the philosopher Sartre, and we have been discussing his ideas, therefore his notion of developing one s essence is
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 31, 2004
      A good friend of mine has been studying the philosopher Sartre, and
      we have been discussing his ideas, therefore his notion of developing
      one's "essence" is fresh in my mind. He believed that alone among
      all living things, humans have the ability to define and develop who
      and what we are by the choices which we make and he believed that the
      basis for our ability to do so is freedom. He believed that from the
      moment of our birth we begin the process of defining our existences,
      and this progression continues until the day we die, at which point
      it is completed. And the sum-total of our words and deeds as recalled
      and perceived by those whom we have left behind provide a subjective
      definition of who and what we were.

      But I believe there is a subtle, yet important twist at play here.
      For as certain as I am that we possess the ability to define our own
      existences, it seems to me that at the same time we are all part of a
      greater reality. Furthermore, it is not clear to me whether we have
      the ability to shape this reality in the same manner that we can
      define our own existences through exercising free will. Perhaps
      Sartre would say that my statement demonstrates "Bad Faith," and that
      by taking this position I am surrendering responsibility for my
      actions. Were he alive today, I would love to debate him on this
      point. For I do believe we might be influenced by a sort of
      collective responsibility that flows from some type of unified
      reality--at least at the basest of levels. For example, it is not
      hard for me to imagine that, at some point a few of the atoms
      contained in my body might very well have helped constitute a
      dinosaur or possibly a star that exploded long ago. And when I see
      those geese on the wing, it makes me feel restless.

      But what of this collective reality I referenced above? Perhaps, just
      as we define our essences by the choices, which we make, the same
      holds true for our race. Sartre said, "mankind is freedom." And this
      idea does resonate with me. However, unlike Sartre, who in making
      this statement, for the most part was speaking of the individual, it
      seems to me that his idea flows towards a sort of collective
      existentialism, one that may result in the collective shaping of
      reality.

      He spoke of different forms of existences, two of which are Being In-
      Itself and Being For-Itself. When he spoke of the former he was
      referring to non-sentient objects. For example, he would say that a
      rock is a good illustration of this type of existence. Once the rock
      is formed, it does not evolve. It exists, in more or less the same
      form, until it is destroyed. But when discussing the latter, he was
      referring to sentient beings, namely humans. As I explained above, he
      argued that we possess the ability to develop our "essences," to
      change in every moment. However when I set these ideas against my
      perception of the phenomenon of my existence, it seems to me that in
      some ways, I am as related to that rock as I am to my daughter.
      Through experiential learning I know I am related to my daughter,
      just as I know that once upon a time the matter contained in my body
      and that rock were once part of a singularity that existed prior to
      the most recent expansion of the universe.

      But rocks can not think and evolve, that is a concrete fact, only we
      can evolve. And I can hear Sartre rebutting my argument. Of my notion
      called Collectivism he would undoubtedly remark that it is an
      illustration of his idea of "Being In-The-Midst," a sort of
      surrendering of personal responsibility, therefore he would argue
      that it is a form of "Bad Faith" referenced above. But I remain
      unconvinced that Personal Existentialism, and Collective
      Existentialism are antithetical to one another. Why is it not
      possible for our race to develop its essence, to evolve and to
      change? Doesn't the historical record suggest that that is
      exactly what is happening?

      Part 2: http://www.together.net/~wbaker/part2.htm
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