Right-wing Existentialists

Creative Fidelity

by Gabriel Marcel, translated, with an Introduction and Robert Rosthal
Farrar, Straus, 61 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Daniel: Dialogues on Realization

by Martin Buber, translated, with an Introduction by Maurice Friedman
Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 144 pp., $4.00

In our tradition, philosophy is commonly regarded as an attempt, however fatuous, to “explain” the nature of things. Such a view is illusory. Every great historical philosophy, at its inception, has been first of all a protest against the way things are. And the deeper, the more “metaphysical,” a philosophy, the more radical its protest and the more sweeping, if also paradoxical, its demand for change. Nor is this generalization any the less true because some philosophers, such as Plato, have believed that the only effectual change which men can make is a transformation of their way of looking at the world. The situation is no different now; only the perspectives of legitimacy—or “common sense”—and hence the direction of philosophical alienation, have shifted. For two and a half millenia, the controlling popular culture remained overwhelmingly sacerdotal, at once authoritarian and sentimental, incurably prone to allegory, myth, and supernaturalism. Throughout this period, accordingly, philosophy constantly served as a stalking-horse for “reason” and “enlightenment” and as broodmare to the sciences, preening itself at the same time as a foundational super-science in its own right. Now, however, that it has become evident even to generals of the army that the controlling activity of the human mind is positive science and science itself the paragon of reason, not only the philosophical defense—or “explication”—of science, but even its advocacy of the autonomous intellectual authority of reason, have become works of purest supererogation. On the contrary, the primary human problem for the once incurably autistic animal is to persuade himself that he is more than a datum, an object of inquiry, a material for technological manipulation.

As one might guess, therefore, existentialism, which is our own agonized philosophy of protest (and hence, one is tempted to add, our only authentic philosophy), makes its first pitch with a flat, unargumentative, self-assertive repudiation of the “objective,” neuter image of man which a scientific methodology and world-view appear to entail. Says the existentialist (and at this stage it matters little whether one is talking of “religious” exisentialists like Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel or “atheistic” ones like Jean-Paul Sartre), “If I am, or am to be, an object, a process, a pure phenomenon, then ‘I’ am a fraud. And if scientific thought thus requires me to regard ‘myself’ as a fraud, then science is not a boon to mankind but a curse, and its product, enlightenment, is an evil.” For existentialism the great task is the defense of subjectivity.

Obviously, such a philosophy is prone to eccentricity and obscurantism. It is also guilty of an obvious fallacy: clearly it does not follow from the fact that a man is, or treats himself as, an “object” for certain purposes that he must regard himself only as an object. Never mind; the existentialists may at least claim the qualities of their faults. For here, make no mistake, is a philosophy with a philosophical point to make. And here is a charter of philosophical as well as spiritual freedom. How agreeable to…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.