|When Sartre Becomes Satire
June 17, 2023
A headline this week in The Dallas Morning News says it all: "Why Higher Education Is Facing An Existential Threat." And most of the world yawns, turning to the comics.
Only people in higher education can even define "existentialism," and most of us, perhaps me included, probably define it poorly. Merriam-Webster defines existentialism as "a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad."1 Quite the mouthful.
Wikipedia tries to define it much more simply: "a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the issue of human existence."2
Encyclopedia Britannica goes with "an interpretation of human existence in the world that stresses its concreteness and its problematic character."3
And finally Verywell Mind, an online site concerned with mental health, defines "existentialism" as "a philosophy of human nature that identifies people as having free will to determine the course of their lives."4
Is your head spinning yet?
It's simple. Ask yourself this question: Why do we exist?
The more you have to think about how to answer that, the more likely you are caught in existentialism. At the core is the belief that we live in an absurd world. In fact Existentialism is made up of the Triple "A" of concepts: absurdity, anxiety, and alienation, all of which form a human's existential crisis about his/her (their?) identity.
Here's the thing: A fourth "A," Academics, created the damn thing. Out of free will, we came up with a view of the world that questions what we understand about it, creating the first existential crisis by creating existentialism. You can't get to existential threats unless you go through institutions of higher education.
The concept began with Søren Kierkegaard, who with his Magister Artrium (Masters of Art and predecessor to Doctorate of Philolsophy) at The University of Copenhagen, and a nice inheritance, was able to sit around the "hus" and reflect upon human existence, rather than get caught up working to make sure he could feed his human existence. Who couldn't reflect upon anxiety when anxiety is just a concept?
Fellow following existentialists weren't so lucky with the inheritance. Friedrich Nietzche needed to secure a position at the University of Basel (in Switzerland) to be able to reflect upon life (for pay). The fact that he got this teaching position without finishing his doctorate or having a teaching certificate suggests that faculty credentialing might have been a tad looser in the mid 1900s. Talk about the absurd.
In more modern times, Jean-Paul Sartre was able to continue existential thought by completing the French version of the MA through the École Normale Supériere. Notably Sartre first failed the examination that would allow him to teach upper level French students. Luckily he passed the second time allowing him a lifetime of lycée appointments. Lucky lycées and lucky Jean-Paul.
Additionally in the 20th century, Martin Heidegger advanced existentialism, using his completed doctoral thesis from the University of Freiberg to quickly get a position at . . . the University of Freiberg.
Hmm? Not so sure free will is determining these guys' lives.
What is my point here? Higher Education invented existentialism, necessary to claim existence is now in threat. Trust me, we have our challenges. As The Dallas Morning Star editorial lists, a long list of factors may bring (some of) us down: extreme student loan debt; for-profit options; less state support; declining birth rates; blah blah blah. You can't read any educational source, including this one, as haphazard as it has been for several years, and not see the litany of ailments.
Still, it seems the height of absurdity to claim a threat that only we can create, not just conceptually, but in reality. Several of the reasons in the The Dallas Morning Star story come from our own doing: our "extreme resistance to change"; our "disconnect between degrees and jobs in business, industry and government"; and "antiquated recruiting and admissions processes."
None of that is really headline worthy. What is headline worthy are these absurd moments in higher ed, just this week:
I write this today full of great angst and dread. I tried to do some basic trap repair on a bathroom sink, to no success; called for a plumber, only to find out 5 hours later that he won't make it until Monday. I know it's only one sink. Still, plumbing problems? They're an existential threat. If I had been able to get someone to come on the weekend, I probably would have paid that person $300 for less than a half hour's time. On Monday, I may still pay $250. Meanwhile, I wrote a blog for a website that generates nary a penny.
Maybe such an experience is what caused Sartre to write Nausea?
1"Existentialism." Merriam-Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/existentialism. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
2"Existentialism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
3"Existentialism." Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/existentialism. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
4"What To Know About Existentialism--Philosophy and Existential Therapy." Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-existentialism-5667161. Retrieved June 16, 2023.