Essays Existentialism

Essays Existentialism-4
So how might we go about defining this existential value?

So how might we go about defining this existential value?

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But as Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out in “Existentialism is a Humanism,” even believers must recognize that they ultimately are the ones responsible for the production of meaning (in fact, many early existentialists were Christians).

Abraham had to decide for himself whether the angel who commanded him to halt his sacrifice was genuinely a divine messenger.

Most humanists hold the value of the objects they study to be self-evident.

The student who falls in love with Kant, Flaubert, or ancient Egypt does not need to provide an explanation for why she would like to devote years of her life to such studies.

At the same time, we also know that some people do find it deeply meaningful to peruse these works, and even to dedicate their careers to studying them.

What is it, then, that lovers of literature -- to consider but them for the moment -- find so existentially rewarding about reading?The fundamental reason why students should devote hours of their weeks to novels, philosophy, art, music, or history is not so that they can hone their communication skills or refine their critical thinking.It is because the humanities offer students a profound sense of existential purpose.Pretending that everything happens for a reason is precisely what the existentialists castigated as “bad faith.” Yet there’s an obvious difference between enjoying a novel and, say, believing in Providence.We don’t inhabit fictional worlds, we only pay them visits.Well-ordered, fictional worlds attract us, it seems, because we, too, aspire to live lives from which contingency is kept at bay.Beauty, wrote Stendhal, is “only a promise of happiness.” As Alexander Nehamas suggested, in his book of this title, the beautiful work of art provides us with a tantalizing pleasure; beauty engages us in its pursuit. “To find something beautiful is inseparable from the need to understand what makes it so,” he writes.The real challenge that we face today, then, lies in explaining to a perplexed, but not necessarily hostile audience -- and perhaps even to ourselves -- why it is that the study of literature, anthropology, art history, or classics can be so meaningful, and why this existential rationale is equally important as other, more utilitarian ones.This line of argument stands in opposition to proclamations of the humanities’ uselessness: to declare that the humanities are of existential value is to affirm that they are very useful indeed.To paraphrase Max Weber, scholarship in the humanities is a vocation, a “calling” in the clerical sense. The problem with this kind of spiritual passion is that it is difficult to describe.To paraphrase another 20th-century giant, Jimi Hendrix, it’s more about the experience.


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