The Future of Existential Psychology: Just What Is Existential Choice?

Photo by Matt Rosser.
Photo by Matt Rosser.

The issue of choice and “the freedom to choose” lies at the heart of existential thought and practice. But what is usually expressed about this key theme tends to be overly optimistic and solipsistic. In addition, choice is almost always perceived as being “multi-optional.” Below, I have attempted to present an overview of existential choice as I have come to understand it. You may disagree, but I hope that, nonetheless, you are challenged.

Sartre made it plain: choice is more accurately a condemnation than it is a matter of celebration. Every choice made has its pay-off and its price, and which is which in many of the choices either willingly undertaken or forced upon us is not readily predictable or foreseeable (Sartre, 1956). Even the best, most desirable and fulfilling choice will provoke some degree of regret since every choice confronts us with what has been lost to us as a result of having made that choice. From the standpoint of existential phenomenology, choice is understood in the following ways:

1. Choice is a condition of relatedness. Existential choice is not at the separate individual or subjective level, but is always grounded in intersubjectivity. The “I” who chooses is not an isolated, exclusively self-defining “I” but rather an “I” whose uniqueness, individuality, and reflective existence is a consequential expression of relatedness. In this way, “my” choice is not mine alone to make. Nor is its impact and consequence directed solely to, or for, me.

2. Choice is not at the level of origination. Existential choice makes no claim that persons have the capacity or ability to control or determine the plethora of event stimuli that occur at any and every moment. Like The Buddha’s teachings, existential thought argues that “You are not the Do-er.” Human existence is always situated in a set of “thrown” conditions. Within such conditions, existential choice concerns itself with the significance and meaning given to them, the interpretation made of any given event, the attitude taken toward it, the affective and behavioural responses to it. Ultimately, the way a being is in relation with the presenting conditions is that being’s choice. Facticity, or that which is pre-set or determined, such as our time and place of birth, our nationality and so forth, is not a separate set of conditions, nor is it an obstacle to freedom and choice. Our freedom and choice includes facticity. If a tension exists, it is not between freedom/choice and facticity per se, but rather between a stance toward freedom and choice that includes facticity or one that excludes it.

3. The choice available to construe meaning is not always, nor even often, at a multi-optional level. The given conditions of embodiment, temporality, spatiality and historical context may well impose a single-option choice as to the meaning ascribed to any particular experience of being. As Heidegger puts it, my choice “is only the choice of one possibility—that is, in tolerating one’s not having chosen the others and one’s not being able to choose them” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 331, as quoted in Cohn, 2002, p. 97; emphasis in the original). Existential choice, and the possibilities that emerge through it, rests on the choosing or embracing of that choice that is there, already present, rather than adopting an inauthentic stance that assumes or insists that something other than that one choice can be, and in some sense is already, present. Although a single-option choice might not, at first, appear to be a choice at all, this argument is critical to the understanding of existential theory’s stance on choice.

Consider the following example: I am in a room that I cannot leave. Inside the room, loud grating music is playing that I cannot turn off. As far as I am concerned, harming or killing myself in order to escape the noise are not options worthy of my consideration. I am faced with a single-option choice: can I choose to accept my circumstances as they present themselves to me? Of course, I can invent all manner of multi-option choices but these are only available to my imagination. Nonetheless, I could convince myself, or claim that, even so, any of these imaginary options is actually available to me. And if I do so, and act on this imaginary choice that is not an actual choice I am all too likely to add to my sense of misery or provoke an even greater tragedy. How? Either because I act as though the imaginary choice achieved the desired actual consequences and create all manner of unwanted and unexpected consequences that arise as a result of this false premise. Or because the imaginary choice fails to fulfil my project and confronts me with my failure and the regret that accompanies it.

Instead, if I embrace the one actual choice that is available to me, to remain in the noise-filled room, the experience may still be miserable, perhaps even tragic, but in accepting the one actual choice my relationship to the event conditions alters even if the event conditions remain the same. At its most basic, in taking this stance, I am no longer a victim to my circumstances. This stance, too, may well provoke regret (as all choices will) but it is the regret that emerges from the making of the choice available to me rather than the regret of avoiding that choice and deceiving myself into believing and acting as though “something other” is there for me.

This view of choice makes plain once again how, existentially-speaking, choice is not solely, or even primarily, a pleasant or desirable enterprise. Indeed, the attempt to abdicate from or deny choice may provide a desired reduction of tension as well as an escape from the regret arising from the often difficult and uncertain demands that existential choices present. Further, this existential view of choice discloses how many of the disruptions and tribulations that provoke such pain and unease can be seen to arise when we insist upon claiming the ability to choose that which is not open to our choosing. Faced with the choice of “A or A,” many of us insist that it remains possible for us to choose the non-existent option of “B” and then act out its consequences.

— Ernesto Spinelli

Today’s guest contributor, Ernesto Spinelli, is an existential therapist practicing in London, England.

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