Why existentialism’s fortunes rise and fall

Why existentialism's fortunes rise and fall

The Existential perspective in life (and psychology) used to be tremendously … well, one hates to use the word “popular,” but there it is … in this country. Then something changed, and seemingly almost overnight it moved from being near the center of intellectual life to the balcony.

What happened?

Yes, there was certainly a mass movement of funding dollars and popular imagination towards neuroscience and psycho-pharmacology, making it less popular to talk about “choice” and more popular to say “here’s what your brain is making you do.” But while true, that’s never seemed to be a complete explanation of the cultural shift.

Philosopher and Psychologist Carlo Strenger, of Tel Aviv University, may have a more complete answer. Writing a review of Robert Stolorow’s new book World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis, Strenger writes: “The tragic dimension (of life) is no longer popular in our culture that perpetuates the myth of ‘just-do-it,’ and repeats the mantra that happiness is a birthright.”

Existentialism’s emphasis on coming to terms with life’s tragic elements has fallen out of favor because the very notion that life has tragic elements is unpopular today.

But Strenger thinks existentialism is making a comeback … and how could it not? For all the smiley faces we’ve plastered on anything, our basic human condition hasn’t changed a bit: we are still free, but still have limits that cannot be overcome. We can try not to think about it (indeed, the idea that we do try not to think about it is basic to existentialism) but that is the life we lead, and the new existential psychology is the process of facing it head on while still finding joy and awe and play.
Books like Stolorow’s are an important part of that: combining established ideas in psychology and existentialism with new thinking to show not just a philosophical understanding but a route to healthy psychological engagement with the self and the world.

World, Affectivity, Trauma,” Strenger writes, “elucidates the nature of trauma making use of Heidegger’s phenomenology of human existence. In Trauma, the system of everyday significance we take for granted suddenly falls apart, and we are faced with the unprotectedness of our existence brutally.”

“The great strength of Stolorow’s book is to gradually unveil what trauma really means: the collapse of all meaning; the drastic change in the way we experience space and time; and the terrifying experience of the evaporation of everyday meanings that we take for granted.”

That these are useful new approaches to advance our capacity to think about, and address, the profound depths of our lives, is undeniable. That they’re increasingly gaining recognition in our intellectual and cultural life is very good news.

— Benjamin Wachs