View Single Post
Old 07-05-2012, 12:56 PM
hyperskeptic's Avatar
hyperskeptic hyperskeptic is offline
Senior Member
Join Date: Apr 2011
Posts: 425

Originally Posted by idealist View Post
I'd like to hear the long version of this sometimes if you are so inclined. :-)
Okay, here goes.

I guess there are two main points that, for me, make existentialism and polyamory especially compatible.

First, the core idea of existentialism is that existence precedes essence: we are thrown into the world, we find ourselves here in the midst of things, but we don't know what we are or what our lives are for. We cannot look inside ourselves or out into the cosmos for some fixed point of meaning to which we can anchor ourselves.

That's actually pretty terrifying . . . like floating in space, without ship or tether, trying to decide which way is up. We are free to invent ourselves, to determine for ourselves what we are and what our lives will mean, but that turns out to be a heavy responsibility.

Arguments about what is or is not "natural" for human beings can't really get a lot of traction against this. If people take their own historically contingent and culturally conditioned views on certain institutions and practices - say, monogamous heterosexual marriage - to be universal moral requirements, then they are deeply mistaken.

So, existentialism opens up a moral space in which people can define themselves, find their own way and their own meaning . . . and pose a fundamental challenge to moral ideals and social institutions that others would impose on us on the pretense that they are "natural", that they have universal validity.

They aren't, and they don't.

At the same time, at least as I have incorporated elements of existentialism into my own thinking, the sense of human dignity (and the demands of human dignity) carry over from other humanist forms of ethics, like that of Kant. I am free . . . but so are you! This brings me to . . .

Second, we're thrown here into the world and we're always just muddling through, but we don't have to muddle through alone. Not all the big-name existentialists emphasize this, at least not in their most widely read works. Sometimes, they seem cranky or even downright anti-social ("Hell is other people," wrote Sartre.)

But there is at least the possibility of finding some meaning, some sense of security in the world, in relationships with others - and not just intimate personal relationships. I'm thinking of the sense of solidarity that developed among the main characters in Camus' The Plague, or the real-world solidarity between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty during the Resistance.

The old pop-existentialist saw is that we are all born alone and we all die alone - at least from the point of view of our own conscious experience: no one else can experience the opening and the closing of someone's personal window into the world. In between, there are limits to how close we can get to other people, how well we can understand them or see the world as they see it.

But we can keep trying. We can enrich our lives with friendship and affection, and with common causes. We can muddle through together, for a while, at least.

The standard model is that each of us has to find or choose one person to be the main co-muddler, and we should pledge ourselves to muddle through with just that one person until one or another window closes. There's nothing essentially wrong with it, but neither is it the only live option.

It does strike me as an especially risky strategy, though, and not really all that true to how things tend to work out. My wife and I are long-term co-muddlers and, as far as we can see, intend to stay together as long as we both live. But we are now both open to recognizing and joining with others we happen across who are muddling in more-or-less the same direction.

The nautical metaphor keeps coming back. We are, each of us, at sea in a little boat, with no land on the horizon and no anchor. Storms come and go; sometimes we are tossed around and swamped, sometimes all is calm. When someone else happens by, we may tie our boats together, even if just for a little while, and compare notes, and share stories and laughter.

The sea is still there, and storms will come. Bindings break, and boats will drift apart. Eventually, my boat, and perhaps my boat alone, will sink beneath the waves.

In the mean time, there is meaning and comfort to be found in the impromptu flotilla.

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge" - Charles Darwin

"Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial." - Friedrich Nietzsche
Reply With Quote