essays

Jun 1, 1982

Existentialism: Nature & Freedom

“Man’s consciousness, or his intentionality creatively fashions, with complete freedom, whatever reality he chooses.”

Jacob Needleman
Department of Philosophy, San Francisco State University; Director of the Center for the Study of New Religious Movements in America

“Man’s Nature and Natural Man.” In Consciousness and Tradition. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1982, pp. 12–22.

Existentialists claim that man’s freedom consists in the fact that man has no nature: “man’s essence is to determine his essence, man’s nature is to choose his nature, man is condemned to absolute freedom.” This stance is opposed to those philosophic and religious thinkers who believe that man has a determinate essence to which he must conform his will and understanding if he is not to go against the grain of his purpose in the universe. But “if man has no nature, what can he hope for?”

The existentialists are correct in their critique of the modern materialist world view of natural science, which arose with the mind-body split of Descartes and the “pure corporeality” of Galileo. Methodologically, the modern scientific world view sought to banish the self out of the world in order to investigate the world. It equated the real with what is knowable. “And since our ideal of knowledge came to be mathematics, it was not too long before we began to suspect that this self, or subject, since it was not mathematically knowable in any full sense, was not entirely real. At most, it was merely the pale knowing subject, very much a ghost in a universe of blind, purposeless, homogeneous corporeality.” The existentialists are right in their revolt which asserts against scientific materialism the full reality “of the free, conscious, vital, purposing self.”

The existentialists, however, attack Descartes while remaining strictly within his fold. Epistemologically, they are “nothing less than Cartesian anti-Cartesians.” For existentialists, consciousness, mind, “is not viewed as something which intends an object; consciousness is this intention.” They, in effect, agree with the subject-object split of the Cartesians, merely stressing more the claims of the creativity and constituting nature of consciousness over the inert passivity of objects. In the existentialist perspective, “A man’s life is like a ship that can and does constantly change not only its destination, but its flag, its crew, its captain, its origin, and its cargo as it sails through the mathematically structured blind sea of the Cartesian res extensa.” Man’s consciousness, or his intentionality creatively fashions, with complete freedom, whatever reality he chooses. Whereas the Cartesian scientist denies the reality of the passenger (consciousness), the existentialist denies the reality of the surrounding ocean (objects). “Man is a purposing being in a purposeless universe… .” His imagination may creatively picture life in the ocean, but he is crossing a “truly dead sea.”

But in admitting the shortcomings of the existentialist, we need not return to “some shopworn, naive idea of natural man, bestial, evil, ontologically fixed. Nor need we revive a view of human nature “that either fails to see man’s animality or else buries him in it to such a degree that his consciousness and reason are at best only minor epiphenomena.” Needleman’s thesis holds that from the point of view of mature religion, the existentialist is right in holding that “natural man has no nature,” but this “natural man is not free. On the contrary, he is a slave.” If we replace the existentialist’s world view (in which consciousness exists wholly outside the pale of the rest of reality) with a more coherent world view that sets the processes of thought, desire, and sensation within a vast, ordered, and organic whole, then we see that “freedom would presumably manifest itself not by change, but by permanence” in the sense of a determinate structure of self and universe organically interrelated.