chapter  VII
17 Pages

A Philosophy of Personal Existence

Philosophy begins as an interruption, a hold-up which puts all in question, a suspense of spontaneity and normality: it is a separation of mind and body, of the citizen and his city, of man and the world. The problem is to get things going again, by justifying them with reasons; the questions must be answered, the universality and necessity of things assured. For Hegel, haunted by the ideal Republic of Plato and by the real city of classical times (in which each had his place and his part and enjoyed expansion and self-transcendence by participation in a system of absolute good), the separation happened in history and was perfected in and by Judaism and Christianity; but it is repeated in the individual consciousness, for I know myself by what I have become, in my destiny, and yet I am other than that and have to reconcile myself with my destiny and take it upon me-‘destiny is the consciousness of oneself but as of an enemy’. The reconciliation like the separation takes place in history, when the individual finds in the institutions, activities, and destiny of his people a concrete universal life akin to his own and appealing to it with which to incorporate himself. This identification of the individual with the world through his people restores the concrete life of the spirit, for world history is itself the objectification of the Absolutejust as I know myself by what I have become. For Hegel, then, the separation of man and the world which is the occasion of philosophy can be healed because the ideal and the actual are reconciled in the life of a people which is a concrete universal to which the life of the individual can be assimilated and in which it is consummated; and he criticized Kant and Fichte with whose thought (as with Schlegel’s)

he was closely concerned because they made the ideal and the actual irreconcilable in putting the separation between reason as the law of man’s being and the natural world of empirical selves which it must rule and could never subdue. For existentialists, the separation is the foundation of all foundations, and to abolish it in a total reconciliation is to undermine personal existence itself. Existentialists cannot accept the concrete universal of Hegel as a solution for two reasons: (1) history is the quantitative factual outcome of the individual decisions of others and can have no authority for the existing individual unless he chooses to give it such; (2) knowledge can only be partial knowledge of the past; the future remains open, ‘man is the future of man’. They cannot accept the abstract universal of Kant, even in the practical form which Fichte gave it, as a solution because man has no essence whose right and destiny it is to rule and engross all. Man is only what he does, yet is always beyond what he does, without being anything in substance or in essence within himself: he confronts his empirical self and his historical existence in the actual world, and becomes human by what he makes his own and what he repudiates and what he projects-although of course he more commonly hides from himself in the labyrinthine forms of inauthenticity. There is no profounder self in the depths of the personality, a soul of good within to which man seldom or never does justice; it is simply that he is always in question, always beyond himself, always infinitely more than what he would be if he were reduced to being what he is, that in good and in evil he is beyond himself always, and this separation is the principle of personal existence. In Sartre’s play Huis Clos, at the outset on his arrival in hell, Garcin sees that it is life without a break: the eyelids are fixed and don’t blink, no eye-blink and no sleep. The eye-blink (‘four thousand little rests per hour’) is symbolic of perpetual self-renewal, with its regular exits and impromptu returns, which is the structure of human presence in the world. The moral of the play is not the cry of Garcin towards the end, ‘Hell is…other people!’ It is the horror of human consciousness if it could not break off, if it could not be new, if it could only go on reproducing the past, if it were really determined, a fate.