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The Phenomenon of Existence (part1)

By Will Baker


It’s the middle of October and there is snow accumulating on Vermont’s mountain peaks. The foliage is exploding in its annual display of vivid colors and the snow geese have just begun their seasonal migration southward-their Canadian brethren have been on the move for a couple weeks now. The songbirds have long since departed and a few killing frosts have dispensed with the garden. There is a bite in the air. The page is turning. Wintertime is coming. And I take comfort in the change of seasons. In a way it sort of makes me feel grounded, as if this clearly evident cycle somehow demonstrates that I am part of a greater whole.

A good friend of mine has been studying the philosopher Sartre, and we have been discussing his ideas, therefore his notion of developing one’s "essence" is fresh in my mind. He believed that alone among all living things, humans have the ability to define and develop who and what we are by the choices which we make and he believed that the basis for our ability to do so is freedom. He believed that from the moment of our birth we begin the process of defining our existences, and this progression continues until the day we die, at which point it is completed. And the sum-total of our words and deeds as recalled and perceived by those whom we have left behind provide a subjective definition of who and what we were.

But I believe there is a subtle, yet important twist at play here. For as certain as I am that we possess the ability to define our own existences, it seems to me that at the same time we are all part of a greater reality. Furthermore, it is not clear to me whether we have the ability to shape this reality in the same manner that we can define our own existences through exercising free will. Perhaps Sartre would say that my statement demonstrates "Bad Faith," and that by taking this position I am surrendering responsibility for my actions. Were he alive today, I would love to debate him on this point. For I do believe we might be influenced by a sort of collective responsibility that flows from some type of unified reality--at least at the basest of levels. For example, it is not hard for me to imagine that, at some point a few of the atoms contained in my body might very well have helped constitute a dinosaur or possibly a star that exploded long ago. And when I see those geese on the wing, it makes me feel restless.

But what of this collective reality I referenced above? Perhaps, just as we define our essences by the choices, which we make, the same holds true for our race. Sartre said, "mankind is freedom." And this idea does resonate with me. However, unlike Sartre, who in making this statement, for the most part was speaking of the individual, it seems to me that his idea flows towards a sort of collective existentialism, one that may result in the collective shaping of reality.

He spoke of different forms of existences, two of which are Being In-Itself and Being For-Itself. When he spoke of the former he was referring to non-sentient objects. For example, he would say that a rock is a good illustration of this type of existence. Once the rock is formed, it does not evolve. It exists, in more or less the same form, until it is destroyed. But when discussing the latter, he was referring to sentient beings, namely humans. As I explained above, he argued that we possess the ability to develop our "essences," to change in every moment. However when I set these ideas against my perception of the phenomenon of my existence, it seems to me that in some ways, I am as related to that rock as I am to my daughter. Through experiential learning I know I am related to my daughter, just as I know that once upon a time the matter contained in my body and that rock were once part of a singularity that existed prior to the most recent expansion of the universe.

But rocks can not think and evolve, that is a concrete fact, only we can evolve. And I can hear Sartre rebutting my argument. Of my notion called Collectivism he would undoubtedly remark that it is an illustration of his idea of "Being In-The-Midst," a sort of surrendering of personal responsibility, therefore he would argue that it is a form of "Bad Faith" referenced above. But I remain unconvinced that Personal Existentialism, and Collective Existentialism are antithetical to one another. Why is it not possible for our race to develop its essence, to evolve and to change? Doesn’t the historical record suggest that that is exactly what is happening?

Part 2: The Paradox



 (Essay Collection)