On Being and Truth: Existentialist arguments against the authority of rational thinking and the scientific paradigm
The universe and our world are governed by natural laws, and these laws we as humans or more specifically the scientists among us, can discover and explain by using their senses and reason. In today’s highly materialistic world, in the philosophical sense, a common conception in Western countries, is that only until something is scientifically backed or proven, only then does it have some claim to authority as to the conveyance of the truth, what it is or might be. Another modern conception of reality that has been conveyed through science and physics is that the constituents of life and reality are small invisible particles called atoms/waves. It is science again that gives its rational proclamation of what life or reality essentially is and consists of. But how true is this for the majority of people? How many individuals, after a profound contemplation on the nature of their lives, would agree with this definition that the essence of their existence and the reality they inhabit is atoms and the laws that govern them.
The 19th century French thinker August Comte argued in his system of positive philosophy that scientific knowledge was the culmination of all previous human search for truth. Everything else was just springboards for the definitive scientific method to emerge and claim victory.
In this short essay I will explore how the absolute belief in rationality, science, and progress that emerged during the 19th century, especially the thoughts of August Comte, comes into conflict with various arguments about human existence and experience from existential thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard in particular.
It wouldn’t be entirely correct to say that existentialism as a philosophical school was/is directly opposed to the scientific method of understanding certain aspects of the world and nature. Scientific discoveries were rarely overlooked by existential thinkers, but on the other hand, one easily notices objections from existential thinkers to what scientists and “philosophers of progress” claimed was the only measure of truth and understanding of reality. One of the most recognizable of these faithful progressive philosophers is the aforementioned thinker August Comte. He was the founder of the influential progressive philosophy of positivism and also a leading figure in the early development of sociology. What characterizes Comte’s thinking and, in my opinion, our modern society, is a strong belief in science and technology as the answer to most of the problems, if not all, that we as humans face. From this perspective, the emphasis and relevance of the subjective experience of human beings seems to be overlooked or downplayed when it comes to what is truth, and this overlooking was something that early existential thinkers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche decided to oppose both intellectually and existentially.
The distinguished Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard set forth an existential pillar, if you will, in his following words when he wrote that:
The individual’s own ethical reality is the only reality.
The individual’s experience, intimate interpretation and perception of the world he inhabits is the only reality that exists. When you start looking for a reality outside your own, by this definition, it becomes a non-reality. From this argument one could deduce that what scientists, including Comte, call the value-free objective world is merely a fantasy, a thought experiment or quasi-reality. If its objectivity that scientists aim, idealize and seek they are forgetting something crucial, namely that subjectivity is the only thing a human being truly has, or put in another way, the “knower” of knowledge is taken for granted and overlooked by scientists. Moreover the emphasis on the relevance and authority of the subjective is an essential part of the existential approach to life and the world. Kierkegaard had a proclivity of contrasting the objective with the subjective, which in turn led to some striking conclusions made:
The subjective thinker is not a scientist, he is an artist. Existing is an art.
A shift of the individual’s focus is what Kierkegaard seeks to convey and achieve, that is, an emphasis on the very essential elements of existence, namely the subjective artistically permeated reality.
This could be formulated as one of the basic principles of existentialism, in particular Kierkegaard’s existentialism, thus conflicting with a particular kind of view of life that strictly scientifically rational thinking encourages and most often leads to.
One concrete example that calls attention to this exceeding belief in the scientific method is Comte’s well-known formulation of the evolution of civilization and its three theoretical stages; namely from the theological to the metaphysical, and finally to the scientific or positive stage. According to Comte, each era has had its essential role to play in the intellectual development of man, but it is clear to him that the final destination is the positive stage. It is the scientific method and the positive philosophy that are the climax of all human endeavors to understand the world. All previous methods of acquiring knowledge become subordinate to the scientific. From an existential perspective, this is a misleading way of thinking, in that it assumes that the subjective person and his life values and understandings are degraded the farther back in time you look. In order to illustrate this tendency of Comte, the following excerpt demonstrates that there isn’t much room for the subjective person in his paradigm. What is focused on is humanity as a whole, the system and progress while the subjective person disappears and loses his face and individuality in the crowd and society.
To form then a satisfactory synthesis of all human conceptions is the most urgent of our social wants: and it is needed equally for the sake of Order and of Progress. During the gradual accomplishment of this great philosophical work, a new moral power will arise spontaneously throughout the West, which, as its influence increases, will lay down a definite basis for the reorganization of society.1
As a contrast to this rationalism, Kierkegaard highlights in his aptly titled book: “Concluding Unscientific Postscript“, a recurring topic for existentialist thinkers, namely irrationality or absurdity. Here again, criticism is directed at science and rigorous systematic thinking.
Everywhere it is taken for granted that thinking is the highest, science is turning more and more away from the original expression of existence, where there is nothing to experience, nothing to experience, everything is complete and the task of speculation is to classify, classify, methodically arrange the individual thought determinations; you do not love, do not believe, do not act, but you know what love is, what faith is, and the question is only about the placement in the system.
Based on this reasoning, the natural sciences can be seen as a double-edged sword, in that science seeks understanding but only presents descriptions instead. The scientific one turns away from an essential aspect of existence, or the original expression of existence as Kierkegaard calls it, namely, that our existence is basically irrational. Comte’s attempt with his positive philosophical system is a good example of a thinker who overlooks this essential reality.
Another well-known existential philosopher and poet is the influential Friedrich Nietzsche. He is known or notorious, depending on what opinion one has of him, for his dislike of normative systems, especially the moral ones. “I distrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Again, one can highlight Comte and his attempt to systematize human existence that something Nietzsche and Kierkegaard oppose. While Nietzsche seems to be opposed to almost all types of systems, one can see some form of compromise on the part of Kierkegaard, as he accepts certain types of logical systems. But a system of human existence cannot be created by one’s intellectual faculty, or in Kierkegaard’s own words “There can be a logical system but there can be no system of existence”
Moving back again to Nietzsche, he is no-doubt a rare figure, and in many ways his personality and unsystematic approach to philosophy and life was an explicit example of the representative existentialist thinker. Representative in the sense that he had the tendency to use a pervasive subjective perspective in his deeply criticizing language and a frequent use of paradoxes to confound the reader/listener, like the style of zen koans if you will. The following excerpt demonstrates Nietzsche’s palpable distaste for the sterility present in the rational and objective worldview:
It is no different with the faith with which so many materialistic natural scientists rest content nowadays, the faith in a world that is supposed to have its equivalent and its measure in human thought and human valuations – a “world of truth” that can be mastered completely and forever with the aid of our square little reason. What? Do we really want to permit existence to be degraded for us like this – reduced to a mere exercise for a calculator and an indoor diversion for mathematicians?2
Nietzsche paints us a picture of what a purely rational world-view can mean for the individual, and the picture painted is not a very pleasant one.
One important thing to point out is that it is mostly the attitude and paradigm derived from science that is criticized, and not science itself. The scientific method has its function and role to play in human existence, which existentialist philosophers knew as well, but it is certainly not the only and definitive way of understanding life, man and reality.
-  August Comte, A General View of Positivism, (http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/comte-positivism.asp)
-  Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, (1882), Vintage Books, New York, 1974, p. 335