Who am I?

Anthony Hatzimoysis explains why existentialism is still a highly influential philosophical movement

Existentialism is a rare philosophical breed: a theory that prioritises not lofty abstraction but responsible action. Arguably the most influential philosophical movement of the past century, existentialism is currently re-gaining the attention of people who take seriously the complexity of human life in its personal, cultural, and political context.

What makes the existentialist mode of thinking so attractive is that it respects two important needs of human beings: first, the need to understand our own experience of the world; secondly, the need to act in a way that best reflects our genuine beliefs and desires. Both of these issues require careful analysis, which can proceed only by steering clear off the various stereotypes attached to existentialist thinkers. It might thus be helpful to state not only what existentialism is, but also - and, perhaps, most importantly - what existentialism is not.

At a very basic level of discussion, existentialism asserts that existence is irreducible to thought: the world is not the creation of a web of ideas, and depends for its existence on no design, human or divine. As such, all entities are ‘contingent,’ since they form part of a reality which exists without necessity or reason, and ‘gratuitous,’ as they lack justification, and serve no purpose: they simply are. Among the many naturally existing entities, there is one type of entity that has the distinctive capacity of not only being aware of the rest of the world, but of being aware of its own awareness.

A human being is characterised by the fact that he is conscious of his conscious engagement with reality. That self-conscious dimension creates a distance from his own self, that is necessary for setting and answering questions about the meaning of one’s engagement with the world. Sometimes, existentialists put this point by saying that a human being is a being for whom his very being (his existing, his thinking, his feeling, or his acting) is in question.

At other times, a similar point is made by claiming that, in contradistinction to other entities, what oneself is, is always an issue for oneself. All other natural things are what they are by realising a pre-determined, pre-existing, pre-conceived type of being – a pine chair is a pine chair because it came to be as a thing of a particular material, shape and form, that would function precisely as a sitting device. Ordinary things obey the law of identity: every thing is identical to itself. Not so for human beings.

According to existentialism, my awareness of myself - the fact that I am conscious of my (past) history, my (present) concrete situation, and my (future-directed) intentions - means that no attempt to fix my being along some one characteristic can ever succeed. I am always more than what a theoretical account attributes to me, not because there are no ‘facts’ about my self – of course there are various physiological, economic, social and other facts about me – but because how I relate to that fact about me is, in an important sense, up to me.

The situation in which I find myself, however hospitable or adverse might be, cannot impose a character on me; rather it is the way I stand towards the situation, the specific patterns of understanding, feeling and responding towards it that makes me the person I am.

Therefore, the question of ‘who I am’ is not answered by pointing to some fixed, a-historical, abstract ‘essence’, but by interpreting adequately the ways in which I experience and interact with the world.

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.