I will not pretend here that I fully understand Existentialism, Phenomenology or Thomism — I am just a student climbing the first steps of a long, long ladder. But ignorance works well as a first filter. The blunt intellectual knife which is all I have to work with, for the moment, impedes a complex elaboration of thought that might justify all sorts of absurdities. So it is navigating (or drowning) amidst this ignorance that I ask this question: Why do the most subjective philosophies try to disguise themselves as objective? They do not look at the world; they look at themselves.
This is the motto of Phenomenology: “Let’s go back to the things themselves!”
And this is the motto of Existentialism: “Existence precedes essence.”
But phenomenological thing is thing as perceived by man, thing after man suspends all his judgement about the thing’s reality and focus on the way it appears to him, thing as a phenomenon of conscience. Is this “going back to the things themselves”? Is it just my ignorance speaking here? Most will say that it is (for both questions), but I don’t care.
And the “thing” Sartre talks about in his famous essay “Existentialism is a Humanism” is exactly what the title hints on: man. Existentialism is about man who first exists and then “encounters himself and emerges in the world” to gain his essence. OK, this might be a good philosophy for psychoanalysts or for disturbed men coming out of a devastating world war or for millennials who depend so much on other people’s adoration of their contrived online profiles that they never got to know who they are, but I don’t understand why Jacques Maritain wastes his time in “Existence and the Existent” to refute such an incomplete metaphysics.
Phenomenology talks about things because things are usually associated with reality, so by studying things on our minds they are in effect saying they are studying reality per se, even though it is only my reality or your reality. Talk to most phenomenologists/psychologists and you will see that the reality is simply an out-of-fashion concept, although they won’t admit it.
Existentialism forgets about reality per se and talks about man like the most orthodox of anthropocentric before the age of Copernicus. I wonder what would happen to this philosophy if beings of much higher intelligence were found on another planet (to be true, I don’t know what would happen to most philosophies and religions if that happened). Again, most will read my remarks with ironic disregard, but it is necessary so much more sophistication to come to a better interpretation of existentialism that I simply don’t care to have — I just look at people and see the effect of such philosophies.
Yet I plainly admit: it is also necessary great sophistication of thought to fully understand Maritain’s metaphysics — but this time, I do care to attain it.
Philosophers since Descartes, and especially since Kant, and most of the lay people who are children of modern and postmodern philosophies seem to be afraid to look at reality. They distrust the senses as an excuse to lock themselves inside their own minds in search of their truth, a truth without any reference. They rummage inside their conscience looking for the meaning of existence instead of simply opening their eyes and starting from what they see. Please, look at the world instead! I know it’s not that easy to attain the concept of being qua being, but I also know that without our senses as our “primary intuition”, as Maritain put it, it is simply impossible to attain it. We must start from there and then work hard to grasp existence in its fullest.
Maritain says we need an “intellectual intuition of being” for that. I am still grappling with this concept. But something tells me that I am in a great position to understand it one day. When the non-existence of a violent death is millimeters away from you and approaching fast, it is a great opportunity to grasp being, even if just by contrast to the other alternative.