Philosophy, Rhetoric, and More
Why existentialism and how does philosophy fit into the various fields (including "rhetorics") I study?
As a high school and college student in the 1980s, I was assigned the standard fare of "existential" world literature: Camus, Kafka, and Sartre. These authors appear in reading lists for Advanced Placement and honors courses and are the introduction to existentialism and absurdism for many students.
What confuses many visitors to the primer is that I openly state that I am not an existentialist nor am I within the Continental traditions. I had a wonderful high school instructor, Dr. Ted, with an incredible knowledge of French literature and philosophy. I learned from him that we all take bits and parts of philosophies — and literary works — which become the foundations of our personal world views. The goal of existentialists certainly would not be uniformity, anyway.
In college, I had some curious experiences with teaching assistants. These graduate students led the discussion portions of some literature courses in the honors program. One accused me of not only not appreciating various existentialists, but of not having read the assigned works. I was tempted to present my personal notes and marked-up texts; doing so would have been somewhat routine for me. Instead, I let it go (there were more pressing issues at the time).
My fascination with the existentialists continued as I embraced a passion for theatre and dramatic writing. No matter what a TA or two might have said, I knew the real connection between existentialism and the general public was through the arts. Dry philosophy texts are only influential within a small community, while the arts influence a wide audience.
It wasn't the philosophy itself I admired, therefore, but the willingness of the thinkers to embrace literature, theatre, and film to express their ideas. Yes, Sartre or Heidegger wrote a great deal on philosophy, but it was the stories of Camus and Kafka that entranced me as a reader and aspiring writer. Creative writing, I decided, was the way to change a society.
To this day, I am interested in the "rhetoric of fiction" and how we might apply rhetorical traditional to the art of literary criticism.
During 1996, I created The Existential Primer as a home for my old papers, notes, and random scribblings on existentialism.
Again, let me repeat that I am no more an existentialist than I am a Catholic or Muslim, but that doesn't mean that I cannot appreciate and seek to better understand the influences of philosophy and religion on the creative arts and society in general. Christianity influences even the most adamant literary atheists; existentialism and other Continental philosophies influence the entire spectrum of current artists, too.
I want my students to ponder how the thinkers grouped as "existentialists" understood the influence of the arts on culture and philosophy. Existentialism was a literary and artistic movement, reflecting the European experience. What can we learn from how these thinkers promoted their ideas? What can we learn from their cultural criticism? What does their scholarship reveal about the relationship between art and philosophy?
Admittedly, I am also fascinated by the human failings of the existentialists.
What does Heidegger's life tell us about the nature of his philosophy? How do we reconcile his embrace of National Socialism with works on individuality? What can we learn from Sartre's seemingly narcissistic relationships with others, including his family, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus? Nietzsche and Kierkegaard were both troubled men, too.
If we expand existentialism to the theological, we also run into the major political movements in the United States. You cannot study "Social Gospel" without acknowledging Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, both of whom were early proponents of "religious socialism" (though both shifted with time, I should mention). Knowing how to communicate their philosophies was likely a result of the connections between religion and rhetorical techniques. You cannot be in the clergy without a grasp of rhetorical traditions.
While The Existential Primer began as a student's quest for understanding, it now continues as a professor's quest for understanding. The work is frustratingly incomplete, as I've had to emphasize other projects for several years. I keep telling myself, "This year, I'll complete the draft of the primer." I never do seem to complete that first draft of the pages, though.
Maybe 2012 will be different.
Visit The Existential Primer and watch it evolve. I will attempt to edit and expand the content, despite the disruptions caused by daily life.