Monday, November 25, 2013

The Sane Person Talks of Existence

Via Cassini.

After composing the list of books in the last post, I felt compelled to revisit Celia Green's The Human Evasion. Apropos nothing, a short excerpt:


It will be convenient to have a name for that part of reality which is not emotionally regarded as 'real' by the sane person. We shall call it the Outside.

The Outside consists of everything that appears inconceivable to the human mind. In fact everything is inconceivable to the human mind (if only because it exists) but not many people notice this.

.        .        .        .

Virtually all categories of modern thinkers unite in chanting "There is no Outside". The existentialists, alone, say "There is an Outside". On account of their sane upbringing they feel that this is a difficult thing to say and they say it with a kind of metaphysical stutter, inventing new words profusely in their desperation to make themselves understood. Of course in a sense they are right in supposing that it is difficult; no sane person is likely to understand it. But the difficulty is emotional, not philosophical.

(Incidentally, how well the human evasion has arranged matters when anyone who would say "There is an Outside" is driven to express himself at enormous length, in all but unreadable books.)

Existentialists admit that there are certain states of consciousness in which ideas about death, existence, isolation, responsibility, urgency and so forth may have some emotional significance. But these are rare and transitory.

The weakness of the existentialists' case is that they do not distinguish sufficiently between a philosophical attitude and a psychological one. A sane person may be made to admit, as a philosophical point, that everything is fundamentally uncertain, but this will not give it any power as a motive force in his life. Even a person who wished to realize the fact of uncertainty would find it difficult to perceive it with any vividness, or to eliminate other emotional attitudes which he saw to be incompatible with it.

Having accepted that one may, at certain times, become startlingly aware of certain things, the existentialist argument usually goes on to talk of "authentic" and "inauthentic" being. If what is meant by "inauthentic being" is living without awareness of these things, then obviously everyone is very inauthentic indeed. "Authentic being" would mean to live in constant awareness of these things, with all the modifications that would entail. But this is a problem in psychology; it must be asked what forces are at work to prevent this awareness, whether it is possible to defeat them, and how. It is particularly useless to give prescriptions for "authentic being" by involvement or commitment in the world. If we realize that we are talking about states of consciousness, it becomes clear that the procedure being recommended is this: "If you should chance to have a flash of awareness of things of which you are not usually aware, you will realize that your life is full of things which seem meaningless to you so long as you are in this state of awareness. What are you to do to overcome your sense of meaninglessness?" There is a simple answer. "The awareness will pass. You can forget it easily and go on living as before. But since you want to convince yourself that you are doing something about this flash of awareness you have had, you are recommended to return to your former way of life, but more thoroughly and deliberately than before. Commit yourself to doing just the kind of thing which makes further flashes of awareness unlikely."

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