This is, however, a superficial analysis of what this is all about. 
There is, as far as I can tell, a qualitative difference between a 
quasi-existentialist position like the Biblical narrative of Job and the 
existentialist sensibility we find from the 19th century on. I imagine 
one could find comparable pre-modern alternatives in other 
civilizations. China's Juan Chi, for example, is not far removed from 
Diogenes. But let's begin with the 19th century and delve into the more 
distant past another time.

A reminder, though, that Existentialism is both a philosophical doctrine 
and a sensibility. The average person, thank goodness, was usually 
innocent of the conceptual structure of the doctrine, and absorbed the 
obviously resonant dimension of existentialism through literature rather 
than philosophy. The first time I heard this nonsense about essence 
preceding existence, I thought someone was pulling my leg. But as a 
teenager I had an existentialist sensibility, which I think is quite 
suitable for teenagers.

The acute consciousness of the individual stripped of traditional 
supports is progress. But no-one lives in a vacuum. The role of the 
existential sensibility in one's overall world view and trajectory is 
vital to understand, as well as the appropriation of the 
metaphysical/epistemological baggage to support one's projects.

The modern period, which of course witnesses the scientific revolution, 
the Enlightenment, the rebellion against feudal authority, clericalism, 
and metaphysics, and the emergence of the bourgeoisie, also sees the 
emergence of the individual as a self-conscious entity. This is real 
progress, which has yet to conquer the whole world as it should. This 
consciousness of the individual, however, is configured in different 
ways and has differential relations to the political and to tradition. 
Both the Enlightenment and Romanticism are witnesses to the emergence of 
the notion of the autonomous individual. Romanticism (confining my scope 
to Britain and Germany for the moment) itself embodies contradictory 
tendencies towards progress and reaction.

Dissatisfaction with the social order and the state of humanity goes 
back to the beginning of all civilization. There is an idealist, utopian 
dimension to all metaphysics and religion, however reactionary: it 
prescribes an ideal of what should be while reinforcing what is.  As the 
progress of modernity strips away traditional metaphysical supports, the 
dissatisfied individual, disillusioned by the corruption of society or 
the ineluctable prospect of mortality, finds himself alone, acutely 
conscious of his own condition and alienated from the collective 
existence of his society. What is new is that the metaphysical and 
mystical resources of the past no longer provide an outlet valve in a 
disenchanted cosmos.

The conservatively bent, socially privileged intellectual, warring 
against the hypocrisy and emptiness of official society, needs someplace 
to go, and when it takes a religious bent, as it did in Kierkegaard, the 
irrational retreat into the otherworldliness of Christianity is 
predicated on the thisworldliness of material privilege. Disillusioned 
conservatives make great literary people and cultural critics up to a 
point, but their imaginative conceptual constructs are predicated on the 
same social assumptions of the society whose bounds they need to escape.

The smug empiricism of David Hume is quite a different animal, forward 
looking, in terms of the emancipation of the bourgeoisie from feudal 
obscurantism, but it's not the Radical Enlightenment. And empiricism had 
its reactionary incarnation in Berkeley.

Already by mid-19th century, one sees the dualism of bourgeois thought 
encapsulated in the dichotomy of positivism and irrationalism, or if you 
will, scientism and Romanticism, and by the late 19th century, the 
dynamic is in full force. It is most clearly revealed in German thought 
and in the appropriation of German thought elsewhere. Romantic 
right-wing anti-bourgeois ideology is a virulent form of bourgeois 
ideology that becomes prominent in the 19th century, but which bears 
features that make it amenable to the (mostly humanistic, i.e. 
non-technocratic) left bourgeois intelligentsia.

Philosophers, of course, appropriating German thought (and in some cases 
the Dane Kierkegaard, who is also a product of German thought), also 
appropriate the metaphysical/epistemic apparatus of existentialism to 
varying extents and in varying combinations with other intellectual 
traditions. In the person of Heidegger, existentialism overlaps 
phenomenology, and both may be taken together or separately. I won't 
repeat what I wrote about Marcuse and Sartre.

The pop existentialism of the postwar period is a mixture, as I have 
said, of an actual philosophy and as a sensibility loosely tied at best 
to the conceptual structures even of the popular Sartre. We also know 
that Sartre, recognizing the deficiencies in his philosophy 
(encapsulated in /Being and Nothingness/) spent the better part of the 
1950s trying to meld existentialism and Marxism. (I've not yet braved 
/Critique of Dialectical Reason/, which I take to be Sartre's /summa/.)

The -ism part may be greatly exaggerated in the appropriation of 
existentialism by others. (I'd suggest Cotkin's/Existential America/ as 
a starter.) As I mentioned, existentialism was a popular trend within 
the civil rights movement (not everybody was in church all the time) and 
within the New Left. It was not merely about individualism but the 
relation of the individual to society (Sartre at least was no escapist 
or reactionary cynic).

I also need to retrace my steps and mention Richard Wright again, who 
has been misidentified as a tail-ender to the Paris crowd, when in fact, 
quite the opposite was the case. They learned from him rather than vice 
versa. My memory is hazy here, but I'm guessing that in the first half 
of the 1940s, when Wright was formulating ideas that would be explicitly 
treated later on, Wright had access to Kierkegaard rather than 20th 
century figures and before Sartre emerged on the international scene. 
CLR James was fond of reciting this anecdote, in which Wright shows 
James his shelf of Kierkegaard books, and says all of this confirms what 
I (Wright) already experienced as an American Negro. And Constance Webb 
told me her version of what Wright was up to in this period.

But what's important about Wright also is that his orientation towards 
existentialism and depth psychology was a bridge between the black 
experience and official Marxism, and between his own highly 
individualistic orientation and a critique of the folk culture that the 
Stalinists were bent on romanticizing. Sartre, of course, was also 
engaged in a revitalization of Marxism out of its Stalinist sclerosis, 
but from the subject position and intellectual patrimony of the 
disillusioned bourgeois. Existentialism per se, in the Kierkegaardian or 
Sartrean sense, was not a foundational philosophy for Wright; it was a 
tool for filling in a world picture that would explain the predicament 
not only of modern civilization in general, but of newly and rapidly 
modernizing populations, such as Wright himself experienced in the 
migration from the South to the North in the USA.

The notion of the collective preceding the individual is a banality that 
requires no thought to promulgate. I am reminded of that bullshit 
Afrocentric slogan "I am because we are" as if this is some answer to 
Descartes. (Actually, one African philosopher told me it's a real folk 
saying and not just something cooked up by American dashiki crackpots as 
I assumed. But as a folk saying, it does not refer to epistemology.) 
Feminist philosophy, 99% of which is obscurantist drivel, offers up a 
comparable bourgeois left-liberal attack on rationalism. But here's what 
CLR James and company had to say in 1958, which is superior to all the 
accumulated philosophical garbage of the past 35 years:

    To a society advancing in science and industry, Descartes gave a
    philosophy that expressed and released the readiness to adventure in
    every realm, including the realm of ideas. His philosophy was imbued
    with the conviction that every discovery contributed to the
    liberation of humanity. It inculcated freedom from national
    prejudice for all thinking men. This philosophy bore its name on its
    face—rationalism. 'I think, therefore I am,' said Descartes, and the
    world rejoiced at the perspective of the expansion of individual
    personality and human powers through the liberation of the
    intellect. This resting of self-certainty on man's own thought, and
    man's thought alone, was a revolutionary defiance of the medieval
    dogma which had derived certainty of self from God or the Church.
    Rationalism encouraged and developed an elite, the organizers of
    ideas, the organizers of industry, the discoverers in science. At
    that stage of human development they were needed. They cultivated
    the individual personality. It followed that they looked upon the
    masses of men as passive unthinking servants of the active
    organizing elite. Rationalism saw each human being as an individual,
    the natural leaders being the most able, the most energetic, the
    most far-seeing individuals. Its political form, as developed by
    Locke, if only as an ideal, was democracy, the transference of free
    individual competition into politics. It was invaluable in the
    conquest of nature, and under its banner reaction was driven
    steadily back and the modern world was created.

    Today the tasks envisaged by Descartes, the great man of the
    Sixteenth Century and their followers in the Seventeenth and
    Eighteenth, are accomplished. The pressing need of society is no
    longer to conquer nature. The great and pressing need is to control,
    order, and reduce to human usefulness the mass of wealth and
    knowledge which has accumulated over the last four centuries. In
    human, in social terms, the problem of mankind has gone beyond the
    association of men in a natural environment to achieve control over
    nature. Today mankind is sharply divided into two camps within the
    social environment of production, the elite and the mass. But the
    trained, educated elite no longer represents the liberation of
    mankind. Its primary function is to suppress the social community
    which has developed inside the process of production. The elite must
    suppress the new social community because this community is today
    ready to control, order, and reduce to human usefulness the mass of
    accumulated wealth and knowledge. This antagonistic relation between
    an administrative elite and calculating and administering the needs
    of others, and people in a social community determining their own
    needs, this new world, our world, is a world which Descartes never
    knew or guessed at. As an actual liberating philosophy of life,
    rationalism is dead. It is rationalism which no longer commands the
    allegiance of men.

    *SOURCE:* /Facing Reality/, by C.L.R. James, Grace C. Lee, Pierre
    Chaulieu [pseudonym of Cornelius Castoriadis] (Detroit: Bewick/Ed,
    1974, orig. 1958), pp. 67-68.

On 1/5/2011 10:13 AM, c b wrote:
> “In community, the individual is, crucial as the prior condition for
> forming a community. … Every individual in the community guarantees
> the community; the public is a chimera, numerality is everything…”
> – Søren Kierkegaard, Journals
> ^^^^
> Pace Kierkegaard, of course , for we social determinists , this is
> absolutely backward, fundamentally wrong. The social, the communal,
> the community is prior to individuals. Kierkegaard's statement is a
> basic maxim of bourgeois ideology, whether as existentialism,
> libertarianism, Social Darwinism, positivism, Reaganism, Tea Parting
> et al. In all , "the" individual is primary over and determinative of
> the social. It is an error in the understanding of the levels of
> organization of reality, and specifically of human life.  Human
> culture, society and history constitute an emergent level of reality,
> in which the whole is more than the some of its parts, and is
> determinative of the parts. It is a philosophical error concerning the
> relationship of the whole and the parts. "The" human individual is a
> social individual. Even Kierkegaard was; he just didn't know it. So,
> is the most radical libertarian; they just don't know it. Our species
> name should be, not homo sapiens, but homo communis. Our high level of
> sociality is the differentia specifica of our species.
> _______
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