Georg Lukács: Existentialism

Georg_Lukács_1There is no reasonable doubt that existentialism will soon become the predominant philosophical current among bourgeois intellectuals. This state of affairs has been long in the making. Ever since the publication of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit the avant-garde intellectuals have seen in existentialism the philosophy of our times. In Germany, Jaspers undertook to communicate the principles of the new philosophy to broader sections of the educated public. During the war and since its end, the tide of existentialism rolled over the entire Western cultural field, and the leading German existentialists and their precursor, Husserl, have made great conquests in France and in America – not only in the United States but in Latin America as well. In 1943 the basic work of western existentialism appeared, Sartre’s big book cited above; and since then existentialism has been pressing forward irresistibly, through philosophical debates, special periodicals (Les Temps modernes), novels, and dramas.

Is all this a passing fad-perhaps one which may last a few years? Or is it really an epoch-making new philosophy? The answer depends on how accurately the new philosophy reflects reality, and how adequately it deals with the crucial human question with which the age is faced.

An epoch-making philosophy has never yet arisen without a really original method. This was so for all the great philosophers of the past, Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Spinoza, Kant and Hegel. What is the originality of existentialism’s method? The question is not settled by referring to the fact that existentialism is an offshoot of Husserl’s philosophy. It is important to note that modern phenomenology is one of the numerous philosophical methods which seek to rise above both idealism and materialism by discovering a philosophical “third way,” by making intuition the true source of knowledge. From Nietzsche through Mach and Avenarius to Bergson and beyond, the mass of bourgeois philosophy goes this way. Husserl’s intuition of essence (Wesensschau) is but one strand of the development.

This would not in itself be a decisive argument against the phenomenological method. If we are to arrive at a correct judgment, we must first understand the philosophical and topical significance of the “third way,” as well as the place and function of intuition in the knowing process.

Is there any room for a “third way” besides idealism and materialism? If we consider this question seriously, as the great philosophers of the past did, and not with fashionable phrases, there can be only one answer, “No.” For when we look at the relations which can exist between being and consciousness we see clearly that only two positions are possible: either being is primary (materialism), or consciousness is primary (idealism). Or, to put it another way, the fundamental principle of materialism is the independence of being from consciousness; of idealism, the dependence of being on consciousness. The fashionable philosophers of today establish a correlation between being and consciousness as a basis for their “third way”: there is no being without consciousness and no consciousness without being. But the first assertion produces only a variant of idealism: the acknowledgment of the dependence of being on consciousness.

It was the grim reality of the imperialist period that forced the philosophical “third way” on bourgeois thinking: for only in becalmed, untroubled times can men hold themselves to be thorough-going idealists. When some students broke Fichte’s windows over a college quarrel Goethe said, smiling: “This is a very disagreeable way to take cognizance of the reality of the external world.” The imperialist epoch gave us such window-breaking on a world-wide scale. Downright philosophical idealism gently faded out. Apart from some minor professorial philosophers, anyone who declares himself an idealist today feels hopeless about applying his philosophy to reality (Valery, Benda, etc.).

The abandonment of the old downright idealism had been anticipated even in the middle of the last century by petty-bourgeois asceticism. Ever since Nietzsche, the body (Leib) has played a leading role in bourgeois philosophy. The new philosophy needs formulas which recognize the primary reality of the body and the joys and dangers of bodily existence, without, however, making any concessions to materialism. For at the same time materialism was becoming the worldview of the revolutionary proletariat. That made a position such as Gassendi and Hobbes look impossible for bourgeois thinkers. Although the method of idealism had been discredited by the realities of the time, its conclusions were held indispensable. This explains the need for the “third way” in the bourgeois world of the imperialist period.

The phenomenological method, especially after Husserl, believes it has discovered a way of knowing which exhibits the essence of objective reality without going beyond the human or even the individual consciousness. The intuition of essence is a sort of intuitive introspection, but is not psychologically oriented. It inquires rather what sort of objects the thought process posits, and what kind of intentional acts are involved. It was still relatively easy for Husserl to operate with these concepts, because he was concerned exclusively with questions of pure logic, i.e., pure acts and objects of thought. The question became more complex as Scheler took up problems of ethics and sociology, and Heidegger and Sartre broached the ultimate questions of philosophy. The need of the times which drove them in this direction was so compelling that it silenced all gnosiological doubts as to whether the method was adequate to objective reality.

Even when the phenomenologists dealt with crucial questions of social actuality, they put off the theory of knowledge and asserted that the phenomenological method suspends or “brackets” the question whether the intentional objects are real. The method was thus freed from any knowledge of reality. Once during the First World War Scheler visited me in Heidelberg, and we had an informing conversation on this subject. Scheler maintained that phenomenology was a universal method which could have anything for its intentional object. For example, he explained, phenomenological researches could be made about the devil; only the question of the devil’s reality would first have to be “bracketed.” “Certainly,” I answered. “and when when you are finished with the phenomenological picture of the devil, you open the brackets – and the devil in person is standing before you.” Scheler laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and made no reply. ...

Existentialism by Georg Lukács 1949


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