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.

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad