“Existentialism” and the debate between Sartre and Merleau Ponty

Recent discussions with Christina have revealed to me that I had, in a sense, forgotten what existentialism was. It’s true that for the past few years I have been much more concerned with phenomenological description and political description/prescription/judgement/praxis than angst, authenticity, radical freedom, or ennui.

I tend to think of existentialism as Nietzschean, and fitting into the structure of nihilism and the unease of nihilism’s self-recognition. In other words, Heidegger’s Nietzsche lectures, especially volumes 1 and 4. For Nietzsche, our values are products of our own humanity and social conditioning, nothing transcendental, and they are perspectives that reveal the structure of existence as value-laden and having certain goal structures, which are themselves preservation-enhancement conditions for further willing. In other words, values are will to power, or will-to-will. In Nietzsche 4, Heidegger expresses unease at these revelations, hints at their contingency, and no longer embraces the position that the overcoming of nihilism is through the self-recognition of nihilism and pushing it to its own extremity.

I still believe this analysis is related to existentialism, but I also believe it is a gross over-simplification on my part to essentially have forgotten the affect of Sartre’s plays, and Camus’ novels. In my undergrad the emotional structure of existentialism effected me profoundly – in fact the first foundational text for me in philosophy was not Being and Time, but Camus’ L’etranger, which I read in French in twelfth grade. Perhaps I need to read L’etranger again, or another of his novels.

I’ve in fact never thought of Merleau Ponty as an existentialist, and perhaps it is true that he isn’t. But he was still deeply involved in 1940s and 50s French “existentialist” philosophers, i.e. Sartre and DeBeauvoir, as co-founder and political/chief editor of Les Temps Modernes. I think therefore, that this is a field in my philosophical past that I need to recover. It will no doubt help me better understand the split between MP and S, and who knows, maybe it will help me get a better sense of Palestine as well.

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One thought on ““Existentialism” and the debate between Sartre and Merleau Ponty

  1. It’s true that Nietzche played a role in the creation of existentialism but the concept is not entirely Nietzchian. Nietzche was one of the philosophers that helped mold existentialism into what it is. He believed that “God was dead” which doesn’t necessarily mean god never existed. His statement was made while observing the advancements of society. These advancements made people discredit religion and even become an atheist. Nietzche believed that because of this we can create our own values instead of god doing that for us. The concept of creating ourselves is what Sartre’s modern day existentialism is centered around. Existentialism is part Nietzche and part Kierkegaard. Sartre believed that existence proceeds essence and that there was no god. He believed that WE make our own moral code and decide what is right and what is wrong. The part of existentialism that is Nietzche’s is the idea that humanity has to establish their essence and find their own values.

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