Last year I had the pleasure to teach a class on 20th Century Continental Philosophy. I’m not sure that I have an area of expertise, but Continental philosophy certainly isn’t it. The class involved me having to learn and read a lot of new things. And, I cheated a little by starting with reading Nietzsche—I mean, he almost made it into the 20th Century, right?
Among the things we read was Sartre’s novel Nausea. I’m not particularly sympathetic to Sartrean existentialism, but I do find an affinity with his sense of despair. That’s a problem, though.
It’s not a problem peculiar to Sartre, but one he shares with any number of philosophers. Where it begins I don’t know. It seems to be particularly endemic after the end of the modern era, after the end of the great system builders who attempted to achieve objective, perspective-less truths. You see it in Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, but it is also there in Rousseau, Hobbes, and even the Buddha and the ethical views of Plato and Aristotle. It is simply to see oneself as a fully-representational map of the cosmos—or, at least of the human condition.
What I mean is this: Sartre sees his life as one filled with anxiety and despair. And, he draws the conclusion that this is the human condition. It might well be. Of course, it would take argument to establish that. And, I won’t deny that Sartre supplies argument. But it still looks as if the argument isn’t driving the conclusion, it’s in service of a pre-established sense that all lives are like Sartre’s. Mightn’t he be exceptional?
You see this when a student—or a group of students—reacts to Sartre by saying, “Yeah, but life really isn’t that bad.” What the Sartrean has to say is that the student hasn’t really looked very hard at her life. And, unless the student can be brought to despair, we have evidence that she isn’t reflective.
The same goes for the student who responds to the Buddha by saying that, in fact, all existence isn’t suffused with suffering. Or, who reads Schopenhauer, and thinks that there really are other drives than the will to continue existing. And, so on.
That’s not too different to telling the patient that, of course, he doesn't remember the Oedipal conflict, but it occurred nonetheless. There’s just something funny going on there.
There’s a temptation for all of us to see our own experiences as somehow universal—I am often tempted to think that my neuroses are really the result of being more in touch with the real human condition, but I don’t really matter, nor do my views. This temptation is understandable, but it is a fatal flaw in a philosopher to take her own life as the paradigm case of what a human life is like.