Leon Shestov, a gifted Russian writer on philosophy, once criticized Plato and Aristotle, as well as Spinoza, Descartes, Kant and Hegel on the following grounds: Nothing said by these thinkers could be convincing or important, since none of them would have had anything important or convincing to say to Job. In Job’s balances their moral exhortations would have weighed as nothing. A strange idea that Job, who was not a philosopher, should be the ultimate critic of philosophy, and that the test of rational doctrine should be its meaningfulness to one who, from his dunghill, saw all life as meaningless. But if the test seems unfair when applied to rational thinkers, might it not take on appropriateness if applied to our modern Existentialists?

What, we ask, would a Heideggerian, a Sartrian, a Jaspersman have to say to Job? Let us begin with the Jaspersman, who would no doubt prove the most foolish of the three. Though not so foolish, I think, as to tell the famous sufferer that he was indeed in an “extreme situation”—this could scarcely be news to Job. But what other wisdom or comfort can be found in Jaspers’ doctrine? Oh yes: the philosophy of the Cipher. And our Jaspersman could have explained this theory to Job, informing him that at the limit of his endurance he would be rewarded by a message from transcendence: The message would be a cipher, and say nothing. What is the difference, Job might have argued, if at all inclined to argument, between a message which says nothing, and no message at all? But I think the worst thing about the Jaspersman’s performance would have been Jaspers’ doctrine. Oh yes: the Philosophy of the Cipher to one whose mouth, opened by anguish, had become “an O crying to be rubbed out.” (I have lifted this beautiful figure from Jean Cocteau’s play, The Infernal Machine.)

The Heideggerian, I suppose, would begin by citing one of the Master’s dark and most arrogant utterances: “Woe to the grain of wheat which does not want to be pulverized!” Job would have answered with still another cry of woe. Whereupon the Heideggerian would have been forced to state the Master’s doctrine: “Job, now is the occasion to make of your sufferings something great; you are in a position to unify your future, your present and your past by means of a Resolute Decision. Resolved to live dyingly, you can now make a gift to yourself of your own past, of the day of your birth, from which you have been cut off so far by practically every happy moment of your life. This, your day of pain, can become your first real—that is to say, metaphysical—birthday.” To which Job no doubt would have answered with his famous curse of the day on which he was born.

The Sartrian, in my view, would probably be the most intelligent, but also the most aggressive of the three. He would have had to attack Job morally: “What’s the meaning of this lamenting? Didn’t you know you were contingent? Didn’t you know you were de trop? Did it take the destruction of your property, the deaths of your sons and of your wife, and the pain from those boils which cover you, to make you realize that what might happen to anyone could also happen to you?”

It seems to me that the three actual friends of Job, who are somewhat ridiculed in the Bible, make a rather good showing as compared with such philosophers of existence, when the Shestovian test is applied.

Are we to conclude from this, though, that Jaspers, Heidegger and Sartre are bad philosophers? Not at all. I would suggest rather that no philosopher, whether a Rationalist, a Pragmatist, a Positivist, an Analyst or an Existentialist could have anything to say to Job. No school philosopher could come off well in a dialogue with Job. And the philosophies of Sartre, Heidegger and Jaspers are all school philosophies, just as much so as are Rationalism, Pragmatism, Positivism and Linguistic Analysis. The reason for applying the Shestovian test to our modern Existentialists is of course to show they cannot pass it; yet these modern philosophers play both ends against the middle. They talk of Being and Non-Being, of immanence and transcendence, in the jargon of the schools, but at the same time they claim—or give the appearance of claiming—that they would have something to say to Job, too. Existentialists have gained prestige by talking of dread, care, anguish, guilt, boredom. Now it is true that they talk about such things; but they talk of them technically. I do not mean this as a reproach. I can see no reason why Existentialism, a philosophy of professors—of the university or the lycée—should not be as technical as other philosophies. I bear no grudge against Rationalists, Pragmatists, Positivists and Linguistic Analysts for belonging to that “class of philosophers who philosophize in class,” to use a phrase of Jean Wahl. Nor is there any reason why Existentialists should not be professors, seeing that what they have to teach is a school philosophy. But were not people drawn to Existentialism by the hope that here was a view which was not academic, and which might enable us to get away from jargon and hair-splitting distinctions, and bring us into contact with existence—our real selves, the authentic, death, what have you? Isn’t that why Existentialism became such a vogue after the last war? Didn’t it seem to announce that at last we could philosophize in the streets, and not just in the classroom? And did not Jean-Paul Sartre, who gave the greatest impetus to the new trend, rush out into the streets? He did. But only to stop philosophizing, and to start talking about what can be talked about in the streets, namely, politics.


Not only is Existentialism a school philosophy, but when not clearly and evidently a school philosophy, it becomes simply trite.

Suppose we say that life is anguish or anxiety. Obviously this is a banal idea. It is not a banal idea, however, to say, as Heidegger and Sartre have said, that anguish—or anxiety—is. Why should the second notion be interesting while the first, clearly, is not? Because implied in the second notion is something more than a pessimistic comment on experience. What precisely? Something of interest to school philosophers: A reassertion of the old concept of Being, only this time not on the basis of reason, but on the basis of anguish or anxiety. I do not wish to discuss here whether this position is valid or invalid; my point is that it is worth whatever it can prove to be worth to school philosophers. The peculiar originality and interest of the position of Heidegger and Sartre lies in their combining an old philosophical view with modern experiences of a very drastic character. And it is from this connection comes the specific tonality of modern Existentialism. Ontology without anguish or anxiety is old hat; anguish or anxiety without ontology is trite. The combination of the two, in Heidegger and in Sartre, is of interest. But of interest to whom? To school philosophers.

Another instance. Heidegger’s existential analysis of death adds very little to such understanding of death as we find expressed in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilytch, or in the poems of Baudelaire. In merely recapitulating what has already been said in fiction and in poetry, Heidegger has added to our knowledge of death only a cumbersome terminology. However, Heidegger has an academic interest that Tolstoy and Baudelaire certainly do not have. One of the keenest commentators on Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, has pointed out that Heidegger’s main concern in his discussion of death is to refute Descartes. As we know, Descartes maintained that if there is contingent being there must be something infinite, and we could not become aware of one without some intuitive recognition of the other. This is one of Descartes’ main arguments for the existence of God. Evidently Heidegger believed he could refute Descartes with a fact: the fact of death. Heidegger’s argument runs: If we know that we finish, then we can know that we are finite, and we can know this without having to make the distinction between finite and infinite, which, according to Descartes, is indispensable to any cognition of finiteness. What is so interesting about Heidegger’s philosophical use of the fact of death? The interest is mainly, I think, as an answer to Descartes.

Yet Heidegger’s argument is not of a kind one has a right to expect—and demand—of a school philosopher. Is his description of death a proper philosophical answer to Descartes? Can one answer an argument by pointing to a fact? Of course, Dr. Johnson did try to refute Berkeley’s philosophical denial of matter by kicking a stone. We can think of Johnson’s argument as not such a bad one, seeing that it was given with choler and conviction. In a classroom it would not pass muster, yet a great many of the arguments offered by Heidegger and Sartre are very similar in character. In fact, a great deal of Existentialist thought can be described as the making systematic of that kind of argument which Samuel Johnson gave against Berkeley out of impulse or impotence. Let us look at Heidegger’s attempt to eliminate any distinction between the finite and the infinite by pointing to the fact of death. Looking with however much attention at the fact that we will finish, can we say we know with certainty that we are finite, and without having to make a single intellectual distinction? Is not this the same as to say that we came to know something of the greatest philosophical importance without having had to think at all?


Heidegger’s argument from the fact of death is, I think, a bad argument, one worthy of the street, where it was not given; it was given to justify a highly technical, in fact a school position. Now much of the appeal of Existentialism, it seems to me, lies in the bad arguments—the street arguments—advanced by the Existentialists. When Heidegger calls it a scandal for anyone to want to prove the existence of the world, he evidently thinks this a sufficient answer to Kant, who said that for the existence of the world not to have been proved was simply scandalous. But Heidegger, in taking the position he did, neither illuminated nor refuted Kant; he simply called names, while taking the substance of Kant’s observation for granted. For Kant to call it a scandal that the existence of the world had not been proved was to point up something of the greatest interest: That what we all assume and have to assume to be true has not yet been shown. While to say it is a scandal that we should want to show it is to take the attitude of the ordinary man against philosophy as such. And when Sartre argues for the existence of other minds, his argument is again what I call a street argument. It amounts to pointing to a fact: the fact that he was looked at. But to prove that there are other minds, Sartre was scarcely obliged to prove that he was looked at; this nobody doubts. Sartre was obliged to prove that he was looked at by someone. Yet Sartre’s whole argument for the existence of other minds, often psychologically very acute, consists merely in a description of the peculiar feelings he, Sartre, had when looked at, presumably by someone. Even if it were the case, and it might be, that no such feelings are possible when looked at by an animal—or a sunflower—the peculiarity of the experience of being looked at by a being one spontaneously assumes to be human is still not enough to justify the assertion that there are other minds than ours.

Street arguments to bolster positions on technical philosophy: this has been one of the main devices of modern Existentialism. Which makes one understand how people could have been led to believe that Existentialism had at last taken philosophy out of the classroom and that it was finally possible to philosophize in the street. For outside the classroom bad arguments are often more persuasive than good ones. I recall the reply Bertrand Russell made to a French philosopher who protested the assertion by Russell that Hegel was responsible for Hitler. “Philosophy can’t have that much influence,” the Frenchman said. Russell replied: “Bad philosophy can.”

The one American Existentialist we can boast of, William Barrett, has made a notable contribution on the type of street argument I discern in Existentialist thought. In his book Irrational Man, Barrett, following Heidegger, attacks an important notion of Immanuel Kant by arguing that this notion, if expressed to “the ordinary citizen,” would elicit his indignation. Barrett in fact allies himself with the indignation of the ordinary citizen and so much prefers it to the clarity of Kant as to decide—I assume deliberately—to completely misunderstand what Kant said. I refer to the second appendix in Irrational Man, “Existence and Analytic Philosophers,” where Barrett protests against Kant’s argument that existence is not a predicate. Let me recapitulate Kant’s argument: Against St. Anselm’s proof of the existence of God, i.e., a perfect being would be less perfect if lacking in the predicate, or attribute, of existence, hence God, a perfect being, must exist, Kant argued that existence is not a predicate or attribute at all, pointing out that an imaginary hundred-dollar bill, while possessing every definable attribute, or predicate, of a real hundred-dollar bill, yet does not exist. Hence, Kant said, existence is not a predicate. The point is a logical one and of very great importance in the history of philosophy, and whether one agrees with Kant or with St. Anselm, one must do so by defending the logic of one position or the other. But William Barrett, without committing himself on the logic of Kant’s argument, does not hesitate to criticize Kant on what he, Barrett, thinks existential terms. I quote: “The ordinary citizen who feels the pinch of needing bills and knows very well the difference between a hundred merely possible dollars (of which he may dream) and a hundred real dollars (which he is hard put to scrape together) might be provoked—and just by the very homeliness of Kant’s example—to exclaim that if the concepts of philosophers allow no difference between a hundred real dollars and a hundred merely possible dollars, then so much the worse for the concepts of philosophers! A human retort which would also seem to be not without its own philosophical depth.”

But even someone not trained in philosophy should be able to note that Kant never implied there was no difference between a hundred real dollars and a hundred merely possible dollars. What Kant said, which is so interesting and in retort to which the urgencies of the ordinary citizen are simply irrelevant, is that the difference between a real hundred-dollar bill and a merely possible hundred-dollar bill is not a conceptual difference. The real hundred-dollar bill exists. That its existence does not make it greener, flatter, better minted or better printed than the imaginary hundred-dollar bill, is one of the beautiful discoveries of one of the great philosophers. To reply to it as Barrett has done is simply to show a preference for what I have called street argument, and to show this preference in a discussion of classroom, that is to say, technical philosophy.

So bad an argument by an obviously literate, well-trained and intelligent writer requires some deeper explanation than the one I have already suggested: the desire of the Existentialists, like Barrett, to transcend the academy. To transcend it, they are forced to argue badly. In fact, the contradiction between street arguments and technical positions runs through the whole school of Existentialist thought. And if Barrett’s performance is more peculiar or absurd than Sartre’s, Heidegger’s or Jaspers’, fundamentally all these thinkers are in the same difficulty. They want something which I believe to be impossible; and I can best illustrate what I mean here by going back to the question with which I began: Can a philosopher talk to Job? Suppose we turn Shestov’s question around and suggest the following: What is claimed by Existentialists is not that they would have something to say to Job but that Job would have something to say to them, in other words, that what Job did say is dealt with in Existentialist philosophizing. Can this be maintained? I think not. The reason Job would have nothing to say to any philosopher, and the reason no philosopher would have had anything to say to him, is simply this: Job stands for fundamental insecurity. Philosophy, fundamentally, stands for security. The effort of modern Existentialists has been to try to secure philosophy against security, and this effort, I think, is self-refuting. Certainly the insecure logic of Heidegger, Sartre and William Barrett is hardly sufficient to bring them into contact with that fundamental insecurity Job personifies.

But I do not see why I should spare William Barrett the Shestovian test: an encounter with Job. So then: Job is on his dunghill, and William Barrett approaches with his book. Says Barrett: “You are not a philosopher, Job; how would you like to read Irrational Man?”

This Issue

June 1, 1963