Existentialism And Time: A Philosophical Exploration of the Past, Present, and Future

Philosophies like Existentialism can seem often esoteric, only abstractly related to everyday life. In this episode, Alex comes to Aaron with a question of how the Existential attitude can help him and others think about their own pasts, presents, and futures. Through looking at three concepts by the Existentialists Camus, Kierkegaard, and Beauvoir, Alex and Aaron discuss how the philosophers’ insights related to time reveal practical truths about the universe.

Works Discussed:

The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus
The Concept of Anxiety, Soren Kierkegaard
The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir

To read a reflection on the creation of this podcast, click here.

A Reflection on “Existentialism and Time”

I’ve made a few podcasts in the course of taking a class on Existentialism this semester, and each time I learn something new about the process of producing my own podcast from start to finish. Even after working for others on any different aspect of production, from editing to audio engineering to being interviewed yourself, you still learn what it really takes to bring a project to fruition when you do everything yourself. This podcast was by far the longest and most abstract podcast I’ve made so far—all previous philosophical podcasts focused mainly on explaining to my guest a singular quote or concept from a specific Existentialist philosopher. In this project, I wanted to bring together multiple ideas and multiple thinkers in order to provide some kind of survey of how the Existential attitude deals with time. It’s a topic I have found particularly interesting in Existential philosophy, and it tied in nicely with how Existentialism can be uniquely practical, so I chose that as the driving force of the narrative arc.

This was the hardest part—really making sure each concept wasn’t just thrown in back to back in one long explanatory ramble session, but was connected by a larger narrative goal. Having one concept related to the past, present, and future gave this internal structure more shape, and within each topic connecting them with some conceptual question hopefully propelled the narrative between the sections. Using a semi-personal introduction (even if tongue-in-cheek) attempted to give the whole thing an arc of drawing out something true, nuanced, yet also useful to how we think about the world around us. Beyond that, I just tried as I did in all other podcasts to create a humorous, upbeat, entertaining, but also informative tone to all of the explanatory sections of the podcast. My favorite element that might not first be noticed was trying to incorporate clock-like elements into the music, such as ticking sounds or similar repetitive musical elements.

To see the template used during the recording of this episode, click here.

A Story about Memory (and the Lack Thereof)

I would like to tell you a story, a personal one, in which the personae dramatis are your narrator himself and his mother. It’s not a particularly grand story, but rather one of everyday conflict, the kind that every person and their parental unit has all too many similar. 

The story begins with an extraordinary ability of mine: the ability to forget. This ability doesn’t encompass all kinds of forgetting—my long-term memory can be quite good on occasion, and my working memory also proves itself adequate for the purposes of test-taking, writing, and the like. It is in the ambiguous space between the two, the time after my attention switches to another topic and before I am forced to recall again, that my brain seems to be quite challenged. 

It only takes me a handful of seconds to remember plenty of examples from even just the past few weeks, most in the realm of losing things: over break, I left my keys in the Bay Area because I put them in a drawer and forgot about it; just before break I had lost a water bottle, so I brought another back and proceeded to lose that one; I forgot where I locked my bike up over the break, and spent two days looking for it when I got back; and when someone asked where I finally found it, I told them the wrong location only to remember two days later I had found it in a different place. This might seem like a long list, but to me it’s actually rather short, and I’m pretty sure upon reflection a few days in the future I’d find I have forgotten multiple instances of similar forgetfulness. This might seem frustrating, and it can be—but often, I haven’t even noticed that I’ve lost or forgotten anything until much later. My attention shifts and stays so until slapped in the face with a reminder. Just a few days ago I spent a good 30 minutes organizing an allergy shot appointment for later in the afternoon, only to forget to take the necessary premedications, which I’ve taken for every appointment over the past year and a half. Somehow all of that thought was not enough of a slap to bring the topic to mind and keep it there. 

You can imagine how deeply I felt Nietzsche’s undertaking of the concept of forgetfulness. For Nietzsche, forgetfulness is a strong and resolute human force. It is built into our minds not as a defect or shortcoming of the faculty of memory, but rather an active faculty of its own merit, one that plays a key role in the genealogy of morality and punishment that Neitzsche is attempting to describe. For if one is to understand how humans came to have a sense of morality, a conscience, one first has to understand how humans came to have the right to make promises—i.e., the ability to make promises and keep them in the first place. 

Nietzsche makes a superficially obvious point: if one makes and keeps a promise, there must be the “continuance of something desired once,” a desire to do something that is unbroken from the time of the desire to the time of the action (58). He calls this the memory of the will. This ability isn’t something to be taken for granted, as there are many necessary cognitive abilities to be considered that only developed relatively recently on the scale of human evolution: the ability to “distinguish necessary events from chance ones, to think causally, to see and anticipate distance eventualities as if they belonged to the present,” etc.

Even once we developed these abilities, the force of forgetfulness fights back. Forgetfulness, Nietzsche argues, has its own distinct functionality, and is in fact a “robust form of health.” It allows us to flush our minds of the old and use the space we have for new and cognitively complex tasks. One only has to read once Borges’ story Funes the Memorious to cling tightly and gratefully to this ability. 

Let me now return to the personae I introduced at the outset: my mother and I. You can imagine my habit of forgetfulness caused some amount of strife in our family, only because it correlated so heavily with my inability to follow through on promises. Not weighty, important promises; but if unsuccessfully asked to complete household chores after I finish my homework more than a handful of times, it would probably to any reasonable person like I was skirting responsibility. At 5:30 I would agree to set the table for dinner at 6:30 wholeheartedly intending to do it, only to get sucked into whatever project or assignment needed my attention and forget the whole thing happened. 

I’m not arguing that I had no responsibility to begin with, but rather that the failure was negligence to adapt that a younger me would have to counteract and grow beyond over time. I now have better systems of checks and reminders, strategies to make sure I don’t simply let things flow out of my consciousness too liberally. I seemed to be too robustly healthy for my own good, and certainly for those around me.

Nietzsche might be on board with this practical solution, but it is not quite what he is concerned with. He wanted to know not how to retain memories in the face of forgetfulness, but how memories were created in a more indelible way. How something of a conscience, a moral tool that diligently remembers what is good to do and bad to do, came about. This is how memory is connected to the genealogy of punishment: for Nietzsche, the strongest and most comment mnemotechnic is pain. This is how we as humans remember the societal and religious decrees of “do’s” and “don’ts”—it was burned into our memory through bloody practices carried out over centuries. Personally, I find this is exactly why I do a much better job of remembering important promises than lower-stakes ones. While the latter can cause conflict when often repeated, the former is so painful to break out of forgetfulness even on the part of the negligent that one scarcely makes the same mistake twice. 

This account is both a powerful explanation of the sociological history of humanity and punishment, but also a rather incisive and thoughtful analysis of human nature. Our bloody, gruesome histories that might otherwise be hard to justify or explain for Nietzsche follows directly from our innate cognitive abilities and our desire to live and function in (hierarchical) groups. Nietzsche looks not at what we wish morality and conscience were, or even what they are now, but out of what necessary conditions they arose. When seen with such clarity, it seems hard to view the unimaginable cruelty and suffering we humans inflicted and continue to inflict on each other in any other light.

For my part, I’m just glad I was allowed to remain forgetful. It is a virtue of my mother’s forgiveness (and perhaps forgetfulness of her own) to have avoided using this tact, however successful it would have been and may be for other parents, on my own memory and lack thereof.

Kierkegaard and Love: Marriage as the Essential Unfaithfulness

Kierkegaard makes quite a striking claim in the midst of his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and in fact sets it aside to lie inconspicuously in a footnote: “the incidental unfaithfulness [in an erotic relationship] is to love someone else.” 

I have to imagine someone who has been cheated on wouldn’t exactly call that unfaithfulness incidental, but Kierkegaard somehow goes a step further. Not only is loving another incidental, but the essential unfaithfulness is not adultery, but marriage. For such a counterintuitive claim, it gives me some semblance of reassurance in his logic to know that Kierkegaard himself followed through on his principle and never married; yet it still takes quite a commitment to one’s own ideas to denounce what most consider the great culmination of love as the very thing that undermines it. This is the commitment that one might see in Camus and other existentialists, the commitment that finds the seams in the dome-shaped firmament and realizes it’s made of cloth and wool and plaster. I imagine Kierkegaard would too appreciate the image of him as the waywardly determined man poking his head through the edge of the sky. 

So, what now: marriage is divorce? How did we get here? 

Kierkegaard relegates this comment to a footnote precisely because it serves only to illustrate and add nuance to his claims about the difference between a subjective thinker and an objective thinker. This distinction later becomes important when he argues about truth and the leap of faith required in eternal decision-making. It is important because it establishes something he believes other thinkers, whom he calls “speculative” thinkers, seemed to have forgotten: that a thinker must exist.

Quite an oversight, one might think. Kierkegaard would agree. But this isn’t a trivial clarification: Kierkegaard notes that, as subjective thinkers, we exist in our own thinking. If we have an objective thought—say, there’s a big cloud in the sky—then we as existing can’t help but also be in relation to that thought. We don’t just have a thought and deposit it into the universe as a fully formed idea. We have thoughts about our thoughts—maybe, you reflect on the related bigness of that cloud to other clouds and why you consider it big, or the fact that it could seem big right now because you left your glasses at home. This is what Kierkegaard calls “double-reflection.”

Double-reflection gives your experience a unique quality: you-ness. You have your specific relation to your own thoughts that nobody else has, even if they have access to your objective thought through communication. Nor can you fully communicate your you-ness in relation to your thought: you can try, artistically approximate and express the gist or a facet of the relation, but you as existing are always changing. You are never static. This is another revelation of your existence as a thinker Kierkegaard thinks we have overlooked—since you exist, and you are always changing, your subjective experience can never be expressed as an objective statement. Objective statements are final, complete. You are becoming. 

Now Kierkegaard believes this is enough to fully render his striking damnation of marriage. Love, he says, is a quality of a subjective thinker. That much seems intuitive. It exists in double-reflection as inwardness, your you-ness and its relation to the always-changing thoughts and feelings you have towards someone else. You could try to communicate it—and looking back upon the history of art and literature, we seem inclined to do so—but you must do so indirectly, what Kierkegaard aptly calls “artfully”. You never get the certainty of direct, objective communication. You never encapsulate the whole idea. You never get assurance of truth. 

And what, says Kierkegaard, is marriage but assurance? 

What is marriage but the desire for certainty? In saying “I do,” you express objectively something that simply has no objective meaning. It is taking a subjective experience wholly tied with your inwardness and becoming and attaching it externally to a set of assurances and standards that already exist. In fact, Kierkegaard argues that it is no longer love. Love is your inwardness, and marriage makes it external. And in this way, it is unfaithfulness, and of the highest degree: because your partner loving someone else is not as unfaithful as your partner no longer loving you. 

Is this the opinion of marriage I might have? No, probably not. It seems like one could have a more charitable view of marriage, one that perhaps views it as an artful statement in itself, consummated between both in the relationship and approximately expressing their connected inwardnesses. But it is certainly a cautionary tale against marriage as it has been employed in the past, as something that binds you to a particular narrative of love. This is the same insight Camus expressed in The Myth of Sisyphus when discussing how each instance of love has a different combination of experience, and as such it would be foolish to categorize each instance under the same term. It is an insight that comes from holding true to certain evidence facts of existence and not allowing them to be forgotten when coming to conclusions you don’t want to consider. For me, it is a key characteristic of existentialist thinkers; the one that does make you feel like, when reading their words, you are also slowly poking your head through the stars painted on cloth that shields us from a more Empyrean reality.