Freedom, Choice, and Success from An Existentialist Perspective

Last year, during several of the sessions of my Glimpses Into Existence lecture series, we got into an interesting and ongoing discussion that spanned several sessions, a conversation carried out in large part by some of the participating audience members.  The first talk in which this recurring theme came up focused specifically upon Franz Kafka's works and thought.

A Bit About Kafka's Perspective

As far as Existentialist thinkers go, Kafka is one of the more cagey ones when it comes to coming right out and expressing his own perspective on matters.  In this, he differs not only from the philosophers, theologians, and psychologists -- who one would expect to speak in their own voice, so to speak.  Even if many of them are deliberately anti-systematic, by the very nature of that kind of writing, those authors are going to reveal to us, their readers, what it is that they think about matters.  It's a bit different with literature, though -- plays, novels, short stories, poetry.

In those sorts of media, it is not always so simple to identify the position staked out, or even just assumed, by the author.  The persona speaking through one of Rilke's poems need not be the stance of Rilke himself.  The characters arguing about philosophy in Dostoyevsky's novels need not represent his own settled convictions.  We could say the same about the words placed into the mouths of the figures in a play.  Does Sartre really think that "Hell is other people?" or does the fact of it being expressed by a character impose a requirement of reserve upon us?

Nevertheless, it is possible - particularly when we correlate what is done, what is said, the explanations, the choices, the confusions in a literary work with some of the other writings of an author - that we can piece together a picture, and determine more or less what the author's stance is.  With Kafka, it is not quite so straightforward as that, and so some very interesting questions can be asked about what it is that he aims to say, what truths or even just suggestions he wants to communicate.  I'd like to suggest that one of the points he makes, over and over, has to do with the very nature of freedom, not freedom in the abstract, but freedom as it can actually be lived and chosen.

What Is Freedom For Existentialists?

One of the central problematics running throughout the literature and philosophy which gradually became associated into the "Existentialist movement" is that of clarifying the relationship between freedom, experienced in choice, and what appears to us its opposite -- constraint, control, even fate, a kind of determinism in which we human beings find ourselves enmeshed.

So what then was the issue that was raised in the course of the conversation, spurred by Kafka's stories - and what does that reveal to us?  One of the participants expressed a kind of dislike, disagreement, perhaps even disgust (you'll have to listen and judge for yourself) for a position commonly enough expressed in our society.  It's one that a certain misreading of central existentialist texts and doctrines - a misreading with something else foreign added in - naturally enough leads to.

The idea is that, since a person is free - radically free - able to choose not only within ranges of alternatives, but even how to understand those alternatives, what criteria or authorities or anything else to use to decide, to make one's decision on, and one is even free to decide who one will be. . . then the upshot is:  you are completely responsible for who you are, what your conditions are, and whether you experience success or failure.  Generally, this is said to those who have not come out well in the crapshoots of life - if you wanted to be successful, you would have chosen to do so, because you would have chosen what you needed to do. . . and that was entirely up to you.

But, this is one thing you'll not find most existentialists saying.  Willing, choosing, using one's freedom in ways conducive to success may very well in many cases (though not all) be a necessary condition for success -- but it is no way a sufficient one.  In short, you can choose -- even you have to choose -- and it can all still go to crap, precisely because your choosing doesn't determine any more of reality than the portion you've got some capacity to determine.  And, that's much less -- despite whatever means we may use, technology, knowledge, connections, talents, disciplines to widen that range -- than the reality whose grips and toils we cannot avoid.

Genuine and Fake Existentialism

Let's dig a bit more deeply into the distinction I just made between genuine existentialist and not-really existentialist takes on freedom, choice, and the outcomes -- in success or failure -- of our decisions and commitments.

One might balk at my uses of terms like "genuine" and "not-really" here to distinguish between real and fake existentialists -- after all, isn't it at the core of existentialist philosophy that one gets to decide things for oneself?  So, by extension, who am I to say that certain interpretations of themes or doctrines, claiming to represent existentialism, are less true or valid than others?  My simple retort to that is simply to throw back a paradox -- who then is the critic to tell me that I'm not equally free to say that some people have got it right and others wrong?

But that game of relativist-gotcha is a pretty stale pastime -- and there's a much better response.  If "existentialist" is to mean anything substantive, while not confining itself to slavish repetition of tropes of its key authors and texts, it does have to return to those thinkers continually as sources upon which to draw for inspiration and orientation.  And, at least on this issue of the relation between a person's radical freedom and the worldly success of their projects and choices, there is both a wealth of clearly articulated discussions by the members of the movement and a rough consensus between them.

To review briefly, the position that came in for criticism is an instance of what we might call "ontological bootstrapping," or the philosophical equivalent of prosperity theology.  The general idea runs like this:  Existentialists hold that human beings are radically free, some of them pushing that so far that they declare that (as opposed to other animals, or pieces of technology) the human being has no essence or nature and instead has to choose what his or her essence is.

A person exists, to be sure, within an environment, a world of objects, a cultural and historical world formed by other people's choices and actions -- but what that person makes of the location, the position, the opportunities, the chances he or she has is up to that person.  And each person thus bears responsibility for what he or she does with that freedom -- which includes the capacity to remake oneself into a different person.

So far, so good, actually -- so where do things go wrong?  It lies precisely in going a bit further and insisting that our success or failure is entirely, or even essentially, up to us -- in relation to the rest of reality.

The pseudo-existentialist says:  you have the capacity to decide your own fate -- meaning: by your own choices and actions, if you just will or choose or desire intensely, consistently, single-mindedly enough, you can conform the rest of reality (natural, technological, historical, cultural) to your own choice or decision.

Success within the world is then, from that perspective, entirely up to oneself -- and likewise one's failures too.  If you're not rich, if you don't have a good position or prospects, if you're unattractive or undesired, if . . .  if. . .  if. . .  well, that's your own fault.  After all, you're radically free, no less so than the pantheon of the successful one can parade forth.  So, if you're a failure, or even less than astoundingly successful, it's nobody's fault - except yours.

What Kafka Can Teach Us

There's a number of things wrong with this, but I'll confine myself to noting just one problematic, which I think is particularly well illustrated by many of Franz Kafka's stories -- particularly, though not exclusively, The Trial.  Before that, though, let me mention some corresponding ideas from just a few other existentialist thinkers.

Theistic existentialists, like Kierkegaard, Shestov, and Marcel, will already see significant problems with this notion that the human being, through the free use of his or her will, can coerce reality into some configuration counting as "success," since there is also radical freedom on the part on the part of the divine, an entire dimension, gracious and mysterious, permeating the phenomenal, seemingly secular word and age.

Atheist existentialists as well have zero illusions that our freedom, besides offering us choice and imposing on us responsibility, affords such quasi-divine capacity to shape reality.  Camus sees the very essential structure of the absurd residing in the disconnect, the "divorce" between our desires and reasonings on one side and the irrational world on the other.  De Beauvoir goes further than Sartre in her examinations of what "facticity", the set of conditions and contents the world continually imposes upon us, entails, arguing that the marginalized, the exploited and oppressed, do not possess the same degree of freedom and responsibility than those in more privileged positions.

What Kafka reveals to us, in a narrative framework, thus by example and analogy, in the case and character of Joseph K. - who finds himself accused of a crime and progressively more enmeshed within the workings of the Law as The Trial proceeds -- is a alienating world, mysterious but always susceptible of some clarifications.  It is one in which K. is free, chooses, and acts, but finds his projects miscarrying over and over.  And it is not simply because there is some shadowy, all-powerful, totalitarian system of the Law stymieing his efforts at every point.

Instead, it turns out to be a matter of other people, who are also free and at the same time constrained by circumstances.  These circumstances are in turn often enough conditioned by, or even the products of yet other people's use of their own freedom.  Other people are not necessarily hell, as Sartre might have us believe, but their existences as free, undetermined, self-determining beings does intersect, and often condition or conflict with our own choices, actions, projects.  Often without meaning to, the uses they make of their own capacities to decide plays some part in our own successes and failures.

The existentialist situation is thus not really one of an individual versus the world, let alone versus the System -- but rather a more complicated one of an individual in a world composed of (and compromised by) others who are both like and unlike oneself.

The pseudo-existentialist, as I pointed out during the course of the discussion, really turns out to be a type of solipsist.  Other people do exist for that person, but not really. . . To acknowledge the Other, or the world of others, is to live in the anguish for which solipsism provides a soothing but illusory remedy.  And, though the act of living in that anguish often has to be repeated, and often is merely implicit, that is what genuine existentialists do.

- this piece is a reworking of two posts published previously in Sadler's Existentialism Updates