Justin Robertson discusses Freedom, Responsibility and Existentialism in the Twenty First Century with the help of Dr Gary Cox, Sarah Bakewell and Gary Lachman.


Justin Robertson discusses Freedom, Responsibility and Existentialism in the Twenty First Century with the help of Dr Gary Cox, Sarah Bakewell and Gary Lachman.

Back in the last decades of the twentieth century when I was a young man, the coffee bars of my university were thronging with earnest young folk sporting Soviet badges and Doctor Martens. In between discussions about the merits of the Washington Go Go sound or the latest Chicago House record, we would sometimes pay attention to our chosen subjects, mine was Philosophy.  My faculty was hung up on that brand of analytic Philosophy favoured by Dusty Old Dons with leather patches on their cardigans, all bone dry Logical Positivism, and no fun at all. At the same time, my comrades were full of talk of Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction, Post Structuralism, and all manner of post modern linguistic theories. Good stuff, certainly. In fact, both provided plenty of food for thought, and the opportunity for (not that lively) debate. But they lacked that certain intellectual swagger a pimply youth intent on carving a name for themselves at the Cornerhouse bar, was looking for. No, I needed something with Winkle pickers, polo necks and absinthe. I needed Existentialism

As it turned out, these were just crummy clichés, but very attractive crummy clichés.  Perhaps naively, I had studied Philosophy to get some sort of steer on life, you know the whole ‘why am I here?’ business? Anyone who has studied the subject for more than ten minutes, knows that this is often a fruitless quest. However, some Philosophical theories are better than others for gleaning some kind of ideal for living.  What attracted me to Existentialism and its older relative Phenomenology, wasn’t just the imbibing of wine and French tobacco, it was its emphasis on Being. It was full of handy tips on what it is to be a human, which was useful for a confused youth like myself.

Much of Philosophy necessarily deals in abstraction, it’s a habit that often leads it to become remote from actual lived experience. People stop asking about the nature of their existence, which to me seems to be the whole point of Philosophy.  Everyone is aware of those interminable questions of ‘whether things are real?’ ‘How can we know anything for certain’ etc. etc. Elon Musk and other Holographic fantasists are currently trotting out a slightly jazzy digital version of the same conundrum set out by Plato in his allegory of the cave. It’s a kind of ‘too much acid’ conversation that shouldn’t really concern anyone too much. What Philosophers like Edmund Husserl were saying, was that when posing these sort of questions, one is already thrown into a world filled with things or phenomena, so why not get on with trying to describe that world? The world that one actually encounters? Martin Heidegger took Husserl’s ideas even further in his seminal work ‘Being and Time’. In this dense tome, Heidegger got to grips to with what Being really means. It’s not easy going.  But what is important is that it tries to connect human existence with the world we find ourselves ‘thrown into’, in so much as we cannot exist independently of our relation to that world. It’s this gap that Phenomenology and Existentialism attempts to close, by talking about actual life as it is experienced. 

That isn’t to say that I haven’t had my doubts about Existentialism, I still remain sceptical on many points. Over time, objections to Existentialism’s more radical formulations of freedom certainly began to erode my belief in it. Perhaps we are subject to too many hard anonymous causes that no amount of will power can hope to change? Furthermore, we might want to argue that our planet is finite, our resources limited, so we are not free to use what we want, or to indulge without restriction? Though humans have many unique features in terms of our consciousness, we are nonetheless, animals. In fact, I would argue we are not nearly as different from other animals as we would like to believe. We come into the world with at least some preferences that we have inherited, so perhaps we are not able to choose all our preferences, as if we were choosing a drink at a bar? 

These kind of objections led me to reluctantly hang up my long mac and beret for a time. But the visceral passion of Existentialism stayed with me, something of its spark smouldered away in the depths, the long mac remained hanging in the closet, ready to be worn again! In more recent years, I have revisited Existentialism, and found it to be alive and well, and most importantly, relevant, though with some hefty caveats. Maybe Those hard anonymous causes need not be a barrier to freedom, after all? They are just what is called ‘Facticity’, and hard facts about reality are what facilitate freedom to some extent. Its how we choose to react to them that is important. Knowing more about our animal natures need not mean we are pre programmed automatons either, in fact knowing that you are pre disposed to some mood or action that you consider to be negative, may lead you to modify that behaviour? The Human being is that being which is able to form ideas about itself and its place in realities beyond it, and our ability to use reason allows us to be free. We can make genuine choices about our actions, both rational and thankfully irrational! The world may throw up terrible obstacles to our freedom, and indeed, there is no such thing as ‘complete freedom’, but never the less, It’s a tremendously positive message, despite Existentialism’s often dour nihilistic image. 

So why is it important? Why should we care about some old Philosophy from the middle of the last century? Well, I would say the need is quite pressing. As I mentioned previously, many see Philosophy as a remote, dusty academic subject with no real world applications, nothing could be further from the truth. Behind all great theories of economics, science and politics lie many Philosophical assumptions, these need to be constantly examined and criticised, in case we end up under the proverbial jackboot? 

Here are just two examples where just such shaky assumptions can lead us into difficulties: The recent advances in Neuro Science, for example, have had some very positive effects in our understanding of our biological components, but something less welcome has snuck in with it. Neurocentrism, that is the idea that we are nothing more than brains in a vat. These reductive materialist interpretations of what it is to be human are deeply ideological, and deeply flawed. As Gabriel Marcus puts it:

‘If we believe that such an explanation is sufficient, we conflate the necessary biological or natural conditions for the fact that we are living beings endowed with a specific mind with elements of our account of ourselves that have arisen historically. This conflation is a basic form of ideology, and behind it lies concealed, in each instance in a new way, the attempt to get rid of freedom and ultimately to become a thing. Neurocentrism is an ideological fantasy of self objectification’.

So too are ‘Matrix’ like fantasies concerning our consciousness. The Accelerationist movement of the 1990’s took on board some of cyber punks more fantastical cyborg predictions. Some saw it as a warning, others as a goal worth pursuing. Many have become seduced by images of neural nets and downloadable minds, as if we we were simply computer programmes in a gooey flesh suit. Our ancestors were similarly seduced when they saw the first clock work automata way back in the Enlightenment. We take on the paradigm of the time in an attempt to deny what we are. Our Freedom is at stake! To the barricades comrades!

So surely, now, seems to be the perfect time to try and reconnect to our human heart? With that in mind Ransom Note has gathered together a small symposium of thinkers who have been deeply involved with Existentialism as both an historical theory and with some of its contemporary applications. Dr Gary Cox is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, and has written extensively on Existentialism. His books include a biography of Jean-Paul Sartre ‘Existentialism and Excess’, as well as, The Existentialist’s Guide to Death, The Universe and Nothingness and How to Be an Existentialist and many more. Gary Lachman, alongside being a founder member of Blondie, is a prolific writer on the esoteric arts and the evolution of Consciousness, having written books on Jung, Swedenborg, Rudolf Steiner and, most recently, Beyond the Robot’ a biography of Colin Wilson. Sarah Bakewell is a London based author who has written with great eloquence about Existentialism in her book ‘The Existentialist café’, as well as penning books on Michel de Montaigne and the Danish adventurer Jorge Jorgenson.

(Sarah Bakewell was sadly traveling at the time of this interview, and was not able to answer my questions directly, but after an exchange of emails and with her blessing, I will be referencing her books and other interviews she has given.)

JR-  Firstly, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us at Ransom Note. Can I start by asking you to explain what Existentialism means to you?

 ‘It is sometimes said that Existentialism is more of a mood than a philosophy, and that it can be traced back to the anguished novelists of the nineteenth century, and beyond that to Blaise Pascal, who was terrified by the silence of infinite spaces, and beyond that to the soul searching St Augustine, and beyond that to the Old Testament’s weary Ecclesiastes and to Job, the man who dared to question the game God was playing with him and was intimidated into submission. To anyone, in short, who has ever felt disgruntled, rebellious or alienated about anything’

SARAH BAKEWELL - From ‘The Existentialist Café’

GARY COX-  'Thank you for inviting me. I have a joke cartoon from The Wall Street Journal of a guru on top of a mountain, saying to a seeker of wisdom, ‘Existentialism has been good to me, even if I never knew exactly what it meant.’ Well, I think I do more or less know what existentialism means, having spent so much of my life studying it, and it has been good to me in giving me something worthwhile and intellectually challenging to explore, as well as something to write about and be creative with. 

I still find it a fascinating, honest and largely correct theory of the human condition, as well as a superb psychological method for analysing and explaining human behaviour and motivation. Although I don’t always succeed, I do try to live according to its central principles, recognising that I am a free, mortal being rather than a thing acted on by circumstances, and above all that I am responsible for my actions. Our freedom is limitless in the sense that there is no end to our obligation, our responsibility, to constantly choose who we are through the way we choose to respond to the situations that confront us. The phenomenon of responsibility is as central to existentialism as the phenomenon of freedom.

Bad faith, basically, is the failure to take responsibility for yourself, to act as though you do not have choices, to act as though you are a thing. Bad faith is choosing not to choose, using your freedom against itself as a means of pretending to yourself that you are not free. Authenticity, on the other hand, is the overcoming of bad faith, it is taking responsibility for your freedom, it is affirming all your choices and therefore your past without regret. All this is set out in detail in my book, how to Be an Existentialist, and that book probably best captures what existentialism mean to me.'

GARY LACHMAN-  'I would say it is the resolute pursuit of the obvious, leading to radical astonishment, or at least that is what it should be. It is an acute description and analysis of your immediate experience leading to a sudden “remembering of being.'

JR-  In my ramblings above, I outlined why I think Existentialism is still important in the 21st century. It seems like ‘Freedom’ as a concept is under constant assault? Do you think Existentialism still has a lot to say to us now? And what contemporary issues do you see it being most relevant to?

GARY LACHMAN-  'Well, freedom in the personal, inner sense has at most times been under threat of being subsumed by some explanation of it, whether religious, political, scientific. That itself is an existential question, how the responsibility of freedom often burdens us and we want to ‘explain’ it in some more wieldy way. Existential questions are absolutes, in the sense that they are always present. The cultural phenomenon of Existentialism, by which we mean Sartre and Camus etc., had a particular time and place and flavour. But we can find existential questions in Plato. They concern meaning and purpose and how we are to live. They are always applicable. I would say that they are more needed now or needed once again, precisely because of the trend to ‘scientize’ all experience, to make it wieldy. Freedom is a threat. Some people live for it but many find it too demanding and would like to have everything taken care of.'

SARAH BAKEWELL-  As Sartre put it: 

'There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.'

What would it mean for us today, if we truly believed this idea? For a start, we might be more skeptical about the simplified popular-science arguments suggesting that we are out of control of ourselves – that, when we speak, click on a button, or vote, we are only following unconscious and statistically predictable forces rather than deciding freely. What intrigues me is the eagerness with which we seem to seize on this idea; it is as though we find it more comforting than disturbing. It lets us off the hook, taking away the existential anxiety that comes with making a genuine choice. It may be dangerous: other research suggests that people who have been convinced that they are not free tend to make less ethical choices.'

(- From the Guardian March 2016)

'We can’t cut and paste ideas from existentialism, but we can try to understand them in their own time, which is what I do. But having done that, I also found myself quite often thinking: oh yeah, that’s something that’s very much on our minds now, the whole question of freedom. Personal liberation, women’s liberation, civil rights, LGBTQ rights. All of those movements—the freedom to offend, freedom of speech, and freedom from surveillance

 Freedom is an easily abused word; it can be used to serve all sorts of political ends that have got nothing whatsoever to do with freedom. Existentialist ideas of freedom don’t sort out those problems, but they do highlight how difficult and important the question is. It didn’t start or end with the existentialists. It’s just a part of what it is to be human.'

(- From an interview with Naomi Skwarna in Hazlitt from April 2016)

GARY COX-  'Existentialism identifies the timeless ‘existential truths’ of the human condition, embodiment, indeterminacy, desire, lack, freedom, responsibility, mortality, being-for-others, so it will always have a lot to say to people of any historical period. Existential freedom, as distinct from liberty, is about having to choose, about being, as Sartre says, ‘Condemned to be free’.

Existential freedom is inalienable, but nonetheless we need to be on our guard against all those forces in the modern world that encourage us towards bad faith and the evasion of personal responsibility, towards blaming others, society, the environment or bad luck for who we are. We have to be wary of all theories that advocate social, historical, psychological or biological determinism, theories that reduce people to mere objects acted upon by circumstances, precisely because, as existentialists point out, we are not objects. I like your example above of the ‘self-objectification’ of neurocentrism. 

Of course, we have bodies that we can never escape, bodies that are subject to physical forces, and in that sense we are objects, but existentially we are that which always transcends our body, through meaningful action, towards our goals, so we are never merely our bodies, at least not unless we fall off a cliff. 

Existentialism, as an honest and challenging way of looking at the human condition, can reveal much about the contemporary world by helping to cut through a lot of the mawkish, emotive moralising that currently passes for reasoned argument, particularly on the internet.'

JR- You have all written at length about various Existentialist thinkers, with affection and sometimes frustration! Which Existentialist thinkers do you most admire, and which ones might have the most to say to us today?

GARY COX- 'My affection for Sartre is like an affection for an old school friend, it endures despite his faults. Sartre and I go way back; I have known him for years. Reading Sartre’s cult novel Nausea as a teenager revealed to me that I was not alone in pondering the nature of existence, indeed, the very existence of existence. Nausea certainly helped set me on the philosophical path. No least, Sartre was chief among those who taught me to think for myself, even to try and think against myself, to always question whatever is the seemingly obvious or acceptable position.

My recent biography of Sartre, Existentialism and Excess, is largely very positive about him, but it also reflects an exasperation with his growing political dogmatism and his various politically motivated spats with his contemporaries. Quite understandably, he embraced the far-left as the antidote to the fascism he experienced first hand as a prisoner of war and as a citizen of Nazi occupied Paris, but he was slower than most of his contemporaries and erstwhile friends to accept that Stalin’s USSR was really no better than Hitler’s Germany. There is also an exasperating lack of even handedness in his frequent condemnations of the USA, for example, as opposed to his frequent defences of China and the USSR. In my biography, I seek to make clear the complexity of his political and personal motives, using his own existential psychoanalytic methods to try and understand him.

I am drawn to other existentialist philosophers but Sartre was the one I discovered first and the one I chose to write my PhD on. One thing has always led to another with me and Sartre, culminating in the biography. I don’t regret it. He is certainly never boring. Not least, he wrote Being and Nothingness, an incredibly rich text, and the other existentialists did not. Heidegger wrote Being and Time, of course, also incredibly rich, but far less accessible.'

SARAH BAKEWELL– 'I very much like the character and the work of Merleau-Ponty, who was not really an existentialist. He was a phenomenologist, but he moved in the same circles. He didn’t write very much about anxiety. He’d had a happy childhood, always felt loved, he was basically happy. Beauvoir, when she was young thought, “I couldn’t possibly be with someone who is that comfortable with himself.” He was quite happy as well to be from a bourgeois family. He was like “that’s fine! I love my family.” The Phenomenology of Perception is his masterwork, and I reread that with great interest. But in his final, unfinished book, The Visible and the Invisible, he was trying to write about how the mind and the world intersect. The traditional philosophical idea is that the mind is one insubstantial thing, or the soul is one insubstantial thing, not in the physical world. And then there’s the body and the world and everything in it. The puzzle is: how are they linked? Sartre portrays a dualist world—there’s the mind, which is literally a nothingness, and then the physical world, the body and the rest of it, which is something. But Merleau-Ponty says the two can’t be divided. Consciousness and the world are woven into each other in such a way, he talks about the figure of the chiasm— this ‘x’ shape—and everything is closely knit. Consciousness, he describes as being like a little fold in the world, a little pocket. All of that was part of his lifelong job of trying to describe what human experience is. We’re embodied, and having a body is part of our experience. You can’t divide that out from being a person.'

(- From an interview with Naomi Skwarna in Hazlitt from April 2016)

GARY LACHMAN-  'I started reading Nietzsche in my late teens, then Sartre, Camus and Hesse. That was why I was attracted to Colin Wilson. The first book of his that I read, The Occult, mentioned all of these and other writers I knew, like Dostoyevsky, and put the occult in a rather different context than we usually find it. He saw it in terms of a philosophy of consciousness based on the ideas of Husserl, out of whom existentialism emerged. I’m still fond of Sartre and Camus but I don’t read them much these days. I do go back to Heidegger but I must say that I am less patient with his tortuous style than I used to be. I read Berdyaev still, and wrote about his book The Meaning of the Creative Act in my book The Caretakers of the Cosmos. I would say that I trying to go back to phenomenology in some ways; someone else I write about in Caretakers is Max Scheler, who took phenomenology in a different direction than Heidegger. Wilson you know had a different approach to Sartre etc., he wanted to carry on where he felt they had reached a dead end. So my take on existentialism has been influenced by his ideas. Fundamentally, he argued that they either misunderstood or simply rejected Husserl’s central idea, that consciousness is intentional, that it is intended, that is, an activity, not passive. Sartre, Camus, Heidegger all accept a more or less ‘static’ model of consciousness, the Cartesian subject reflecting an ‘already made’ world. Wilson says no, consciousness reaches out and grabs the world, and shapes it. Mystical and poetic or peak experiences are moments when we become aware of this active character of consciousness. ‘Nausea’ and ‘the absurd’ are the opposites, when we are completely taken in by the “passive fallacy.” 

Gary Lachman on Colin Wilson

JR-  Sartre once famously wrote ‘Hell is other people’, and certainly he joins a cast of Outsider characters from the Existentialist camp; Kierkegaard and Nietzsche wouldn’t be seen down the ‘All Bar One’ all that often I’m guessing? Though at least Sartre spent a wholesome amount of time in Cafes. Is Existentialism essentially a ‘loner’ philosophy, only for the hardened individualists? Or is there a more collective formulation? Is there scope for collective joy within Existentialism? 

GARY LACHMAN- 'I would say as existentialism concerns questions of meaning and purpose it is essentially about the individual. These are religious concerns and I agree with Alfred North Whitehead who said that religion was essentially what one did with his solitude. Sartre was a champion of freedom, but he didn’t know what to do with it, and he spent a great of time trying to wed existentialism with Marxism. This was motivated by his hatred of the bourgeoisie more than any real commitment to Marxism, but it shows that he felt that his freedom needed some direction. But Marxism is about as far from existentialism as one can get, so it is clear that Sartre lost his way. Heidegger went off to his hut in the Black Forest. For Wilson, the Outsider needs to discover him or herself, and this means separating from the herd. But having done this, the Outsider returns with the new values that will push civilization forward. Hesse’s “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” in Steppenwolf spells out this process clearly. The Outsider is not just a social misfit, but someone alienated from society because he or she is driven by a hunger for values and meanings society can’t provide, for a kind of seriousness about life that used to drive people to monasteries or convents. But rather than be destroyed by a society that ignores them – as many existential anti-heroes often are – if the Outsiders can actualize their creative vision, they can impose this on society, and inch it a bit forward.'

GARY COX- 'In some respects, existentialism is a ‘loner’ philosophy. Nausea, like Camus’ The Outsider, is about an individual who is very much isolated from others by his own personal anxieties and vision of reality. But then Nausea is arguably a penetrating study of extreme nihilism rather than a structured exposition of existentialism. Sartre certainly held that the basis of all human relationships is conflict, hence his theory of being-for-others is encapsulated in his maxim, ‘Hell is other people.’ These views, expressed in Being and Nothingness and the play No Exit respectively, belong to the more individualistic, pre-war Sartre. The post-war Sartre was far more inclined to embrace the importance of the collective, to recognise that no man is the island that the central character of Nausea strives pathologically to be. Sartre came to believe that despite the ever present tendency towards conflict, people must structure their political institutions in such a manner that they enable and encourage every free being to respect the freedom of every other free being. Sartre’s post-war philosophy certainly took a more political and moral turn as he sought, through the absorption of Kantian, Hegelian, and particularly Marxist ideas, to positively accommodate into his thinking the inescapable fact that human beings are social animals.'

JR- If this article has left you shaking your head in disagreement, or waving an angry fist at the screen, then it has served its purpose. If you have read it and found it resonates with you and your approach to life, then that is also all to the good. You have demonstrated that you are a free thinking animal. Perhaps if we deployed some of that free thinking effort we could make our world a far more tolerable place to live? Believing that we cannot make a difference, and to think that we are just robots, may well be to invite disaster, we must resist that urge. So what can we take away from all this? As one can see from all the above contributions; Existentialism is not a single entity, or an ideology as such, in fact it can be deployed right across the political spectrum from left to right and somewhere in between. It may not even be a Philosophy at all, perhaps it is more of an attitude? I’ll leave the final word to...

SARAH BAKEWELL- 'Unlike some later continental philosophers, besotted with the play of meanings in texts and uninterested in real people, the existentialists went directly for the biggest and most personal questions. What are we? What makes us different from other animals? What is freedom? How do we interact? How, if we don’t believe in God, can we still live meaningfully and purposefully? What world do we want to create for the future? What responsibilities do we have? What do we do?
The existentialists won’t give us easy solutions, and as individuals they do not even make good personal examples: they are too flawed. Sartre was self-indulgent and demanding, and he defended odious regimes, if only fleetingly. Heidegger, as is now well documented, was a nationalist and Nazi sympathizer who probably remained one long after the war. Almost everyone in the existentialist story displayed some qualities that should make us uncomfortable.

But they do offer something more useful: they were interesting thinkers. They remind us that existence is difficult and that people behave appallingly, but at the same time they point out how vast our human possibilities are. That is why we might pick up some inspiring ideas from reading them again – and why we might even try being just a little more existentialist ourselves.'

(- From the Guardian March 2016)