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What is Existentialism? (A Popperian Exposition)

If a philosophical theory can never be refuted, then how can we abandon philosophical theories? The answer is that we must compare them to the problems they were intended to solve.

What is existentialism? I believe that it is epistemological irrationalism. From Kant we know that we cannot ever know the things in themselves from pure reason, since our mind must necessarily impose our own distinctions. We must either give up hope of knowing things in themselves, or try to know the things-in-themselves by irrational means. It is provoked by the question: can we know things as they are (things-in-themselves)?

Existentialists claim that we can know things-in-themselves, because we are inwardly things-in-themselves. Since Kant also held that things-in-themselves were only apparently separate, existentialists conclude that things-in-themselves are unity or oneness. Hence our own inward self-knowledge of what we are as things-in-itself can be generalised as an understanding of all things-in-themselves, which are fundamentally one.

P1. We are inwardly things in themselves.

P2. Things in themselves are only apparently separate

LEM1 (from P2) Things in themselves are really one.

CCL. The knowable content of what we are as things in themselves can be understood as the content of all things in themselves.

Two problems occur with this reasoning.

  1. The step from P2 to LEM1 is of questionable validity, since if separateness is only an apparent imposition of the mind then oneness could also be an apparent imposition of the mind. Oneness in the sense of a similarity of determinate content of what things in themselves are like, in fact seems likely to be an apparent imposition. This step can be dealt away with, and oracular pronouncements of the thing in itself may be considered sufficient for understanding ALL things in themselves by the irrationalist. The search for a fundamental character of things in themselves relies on this rational step of Oneness in Schopenhauer. He attributes his fundamental principle of will to all things (in the plural).
  2. The principle of inner life (what it’s like-ness) showing what we are as things in themselves must not involve any sense-data (phenomenon), but rather pure thought itself. It is questionable whether the general (misleadingly-termed) phenomenology of higher-order thought structures is [Will in Schopenhauer, the fact that we are always in the present in Heidegger’s completely unreadable Being and Time, and the fact we are self-conscious in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness] can really be said to be independent from sense-data altogether. In other words, is what we introspect really the Thing in Itself or is it coloured by sense-data? The existentialist here wants to make one leap and call EVERYTHING INTROSPECTED the thing-in-itself. Irrational/suprarational introspection is the sole criteria for knowing the thing-in-itself, ex cathedra.

Both problems highlighted above can be debated to no-end. There is no solution to this conundrum if we do not know the problem-situation for introducing epistemological irrationalism. The reason there is no solution is that the thing-in-itself is unknowable by pure reason. Existentialists claim that our inner life shows us what things-in-themselves are like. This must be assumed. No rationalist critique can bridge this fundamental assertion.

Existentialism is an unique epistemological method. Since we cannot refute existentialism, then what was the problem-situation that prompted epistemological irrationalism? Kant’s discovery of the unknowability of the thing-in-itself led to irrationalism as an epistemology. Where does irrationalism come from in rational philosophy? [Irrationalist ideas have been around in non-rationalists since Plato, especially in the Republic and the allegory of the Cave, where philosopher-kings alone have the intuition to guide the populace in Truth. The (pseudo-)problem-situation there was “Who Should Rule? The Man Who Sees the Truth”. It is clear that Schopenhauer, if not other existentialists, is a rationalist in his philosophical method].

Since I do not know much about rationalist philosophy, I shall rely on Karl Popper’s exposition – “It first entered rational philosophy with Hume – and those who have eread Hume, that calm analyst, cannot doubt that this was not what he intended. Irraitionalism was the unintended cosneuqnce of Hume’s conviction that we do in fact learn by Baconian induction coupled with Hume’s logical proof that it is impossible to justify induction rationally’. ‘So much the worse for rational justification’ was a conclusion which Hume, of necessity, was compelled to draw form this situation. He accepted this irrational conclusion with the integrity characteristic of the real rationalist who does not shrink from an unpleasant conclusion if it seems to him unavoidable.”

This essay is heavily indebted to Karl Popper’s essay “On the Status of Science and of Metaphysics”, Conjectures and Refutations – a fantastic book. All misunderstandings mine. If you disagree, please tell me why and where I have got it wrong.