Monday, November 24, 2014

Existentialism and University Philosophy

"the major existential philosophers wrote with a passion and urgency rather uncommon in our own time"

It's uncommon among philosophers of our time, and it was uncommon among philosophers of their own time. And it's certainly missing from this long, tedious description of existentialism. Obviously, different people take different things from existentialist philosophers. I take from existentialism that there's no reason to be as boring as Steven Crowell, who wrote this very nearly pointless description of it.

I really don't know why there should be this incompatibility between universities and philosophy. Plato founded what was more or less the first university, the Academy, and Aristotle made the second one out of the Lyceum. Both institutions thrived for centuries. But a little while before before the man generally counted as the the first existentialist philosopher, Kierkegaard, published his dissertation, Schopenhauer was insisting that real philosophy only existed outside of universities, that universities killed it and that what they called philosophy was no more than a grubby, prosaic jostling for jobs as philosophy professors, which laid much more emphasis on reading and discrediting one's competitors' writings, than on studying the canon of Western philosophy.

After receiving his Doctorate, Schopenhauer made a less than half-hearted attempt to teach philosophy at the University of Berlin, and then spent the rest of his life concentrating on being an author. As for the aforementioned "major existential philosophers," Kierkegaard got his Doctorate and then made no such attempt; and if he had continued in academia it would have been as a theologian and not as a philosopher. Dostoyevsky was a novelist. Nietzsche was awarded an extraordinary Doctorate at the age of 24, and then spent several years teaching at the University of Basel -- but he was teaching Philologie -- Classics, that is. Ancient Greek literature in his case -- and not philosophy. And Sartre and Camus made their livings writing rather than teaching. Heidegger was a professor, but he rejected the label of existentialist. I don't think we need to accept that rejection, but we should note that among the major existentialists, he's the only philosophy professor.

Steven Crowell, who wrote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on existentialism linked near the beginning of this post, has taught philosophy at the university level for over 30 years and currently chairs the Philosophy department at Rice University. Walter Kaufmann, whom Crowell cites in his article as if he were an authority on existentialism (and indeed he is thought of as such by some, although not by me), taught philosophy at Princeton for over half his life, from 1947 until 1980. Besides what they did and do for a living, what's the difference between Crowell and Kaufmann on the one hand and Kierkegaard, Dostoyesvsky, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus on the other? For one, the major existentialists were all brilliant writers. Crowell isn't. Kaufmann wasn't. Crowell and Kaufmann are prosaic. Nietzsche cannot have been thinking of people like these two when he said that one must have chaos inside oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star, although academics in other fields seem to fit the bill much better. Einstein and Heidegger come immediately to mind. (Even outside of the philosophy departments, Einstein didn't have a conventional academic career, going from clerk to honorary PhD to professor.) It's difficult, to say the least, to think of Crowell and Kaufmann embodying Nietzsche's dictum about man being a rope stretched across an abyss.

The major existentialists had huge fires in them which burned whole forests of convention to crisps. Crowell and Kaufmann and most philosophy professors are convention itself. Does it matter whether they're consciously conventional and determined to undermine the chaos of the geniuses whose texts they have their students read, or whether they're simply much too dull to understand what I or Camus is talking about? Either way the result is diametrically opposed to the major existentialists.

Heidegger is an exception, a philosophy professor and at the same time a real no foolin' existentialist philosopher. Heidegger is exceptional in several ways, and mysterious and spooky, and that's about all I have to say about him for now.

William H Gass was a professor of philosophy for a very long time, although he's rarely described as a philosopher, although why not, actually? But in his classes given under the auspices of a philosophy department his students read mostly fiction and poetry. Gass has written mostly fiction and literary criticism (although it's unlike any other literary criticism), and then there's his book On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, a book I was thinking is in a category all by itself, but then I thought of the 3-volume work on spheres by the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk -- who is the chancellor of a university of art & design. The one of them explores human life via a color, the other via a shape. And neither of them fit into any conventional career categories. Just like the major existentialists.

Just like any major artist. A true artist or philosopher or physicist cannot be fit into any categories which exist when they're working, because their work is original. No one else has imagined something like their work, and so no one has yet made a category for it.

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