There is a tendency to think that the history of philosophy is no longer relevant to us today — assuming it ever has been relevant — because it can’t help us with solving problems that we face in the contemporary world. This view is becoming ever more common and problematic, as increasing numbers of universities explore swapping philosophy programs, amongst other humanities programs, for new offerings in STEM and technical, career-focused fields that seem obviously relevant to us today, such as cybersecurity and game design. Someone who takes this view of the history of philosophy — we can call this person the philosophy-sceptic — might propose the following argument in support of their view. Philosophers of the past didn’t know about current scientific, ethical, or political issues such as climate change, designer babies, fake news, or Brexit. Therefore, the history of philosophy can’t offer us all that much by way of conceptual resources to help us to solve these problems. Hence, by extension, the history of philosophy isn’t relevant to us today.
The history of existentialism may be better placed than the history of philosophy as a whole to provide a more satisfying response to the philosophy-sceptic. Existentialist philosophers including Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, as well as Sartre and Beauvoir, have consistently framed existentialist philosophy as a way of seeking meaning in life, and also as a way of examining and responding effectively to problems or concerns that arise for us in and through our lived experiences. Existential philosophers in the European intellectual tradition therefore tend to be strongly concerned with the question of authenticity: how we stand in relation to ourselves as fundamentally responsible for our projects and our values, individually, and in our relations with other people. If we do not find a satisfying way of answering this question of authenticity, then we end up living inauthentically. For existentialist philosophers, an inauthentic way of living is not simply a conceptual failure: it is detrimental to us in practical ways.
Nietzsche was particularly concerned with the negative health effects of inauthentic living, on an individual and on a cultural level. He is one of the few existentialist philosophers who received at least some formal training in healthcare; he served briefly as a member of the Prussian medical corps in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, providing emergency care to wounded soldiers. While his experience was not extensive, it did nonetheless mark his philosophical development. He pursues answers to questions about the relationship between illness, health, and human development in his work on the free spirit, in which he attempts to counter the health-limiting effects of a form of morality that he describes as customary morality.
Nietzsche’s active campaign against customary morality commences in his book Dawn. In this book, he criticises how a form of morality that is based on obedience to custom gets in the way of key aspects of human flourishing and development. The most moral person, from the perspective of customary morality, is the person who makes the largest sacrifice to custom. In so doing, the person overcomes themselves, not because of any particular benefit from the sacrifice, but rather so that custom or tradition can triumph over individuals. While self-overcoming could have a more life-affirming and positive goal, under the rule of customary morality it is life-abnegating. Those who fail to heed the demand for sacrifice may become liable to compensate their community, or for their community to exact some form of revenge upon them, because of their individual transgressive actions. Instead of this, Nietzsche proposes that those individuals who are able should to take responsibility for their own health, by making themselves into the sources of their own values, rather than relying upon received social authorities, such as priests, or doctors, or teachers, to tell them what they ought to value. His concern for the negative health effects of inauthentic life prompt him to experiment with setting up new customs or traditions, which he actively encourages his readers to try for themselves.
The philosophy-sceptic might worry that Nietzsche’s experimentation with values in order to avoid the unhealthy limitations of inauthentic life sounds vague and impractical, especially with regard to the concerns of contemporary medicine and healthcare. However, it is certainly the case that Nietzsche’s thinking can be applied to specific issues in contemporary bioethics; this is unsurprising given that value identification and creation is both a core characteristic of Nietzsche’s thought as well as an essential feature of contemporary healthcare. Just as one example, Nietzsche’s account of free death facilitates a valuable contribution to the debate surrounding our moral uncertainty concerning physician-assisted dying. In Dawn, and in his later book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche distinguishes between the end of a life — the death of a person — and the goal of a life — the particular spirit and quality that characterise that person’s life. As he writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra,
“Free for death and free in death, a sacred Nay-sayer when it is no longer time
for Yea: thus is his understanding of death and life.
That your dying be no blasphemy against humans and earth, my friends: that is
what I ask from the honey of your souls.”
Instead of seeing death as the end of a person’s life, the text prompts us to imagine death as a consummation of life. This, Nietzsche indicates, would enable us to liberate ourselves from imposed value assessments concerning death and dying, and would help us to pursue our own values, and thereby to live more authentically. Death on Nietzsche’s account need not necessarily be life-negating, but may instead be understood as life-affirming, in the sense of constituting a consummation of the values to which a person has committed themselves during their life. This helps us to appreciate why someone with a terminal illness may wish to seek physician aid in dying: not in opposition to life, but as a fulfilment of their life’s goals. Not everyone will seek such an option, but Nietzsche’s emphasis on living authentically as a matter of taking responsibility for one’s own values may help us to better appreciate why for some people, seeking physician aid in dying could count as a positive, life-affirmatory, decision. This is not a simple, top-down application of a theory, as one sometimes sees in bioethics, but rather, is a means of opening up a fresh perspective on the issue as well as facilitating a more existentially authentic way of living (and indeed, dying).
The philosophy-sceptic might, however, raise another concern. Philosophers are products of their time, and the biases and gaps in understanding inherent to their time are more than likely to be reflected in their work. Perpetuating or glossing over past injustices by using historically-situated conceptual tools is not defensible. Neither is the perpetuation of problematic biases and gaps in understanding through applications of the history of philosophy in solving contemporary problems. Existentialist philosophy is certainly not immune to this concern, but its resources can help sketch out a response to the philosophy-sceptic.
Black existentialism also grapples with the central existentialist question of authenticity. Black existentialism is, importantly, an activist philosophical project with respect to this question. Grounded in black people’s experiences of oppression, black existentialism seeks authenticity, justice, and liberation in a world that is (still) overfull of anti-black racism, colonialism, sexism and misogynoir, as well as stereotyping and microaggressions. Health and medicine constitutes an important point of connection between black existentialism and existential philosophers of the nineteenth century such as Nietzsche, as well as providing an opportunity to highlight the innovation of black existentialist thought.
Fanon’s expertise in medicine, as well as his critical engagement with the negative effects of issues of race and colonialism, far exceeds that of Nietzsche. A veteran, qualified psychiatrist and chief of psychiatry at the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria, Fanon is perhaps the most perfectly placed philosopher to speak of health from both a medical and an existentialist perspective at the same time. For Fanon, authenticity as an existential question is bound up with health. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon discusses the consequences of colonisation for psychological health, pointing out the way in which colonialism systemically disables the capacity to humanise of all those it touches, including medical professionals as well as patients. Fanon shows how racism and colonialism in the history of medicine and psychiatry has been insufficiently acknowledged and challenged, and how they continue to shape the profession of medicine, particularly through delegitimisation of patients’ testimony — what philosophers would today identify as a form of epistemic injustice.
As Fanon points out in Black Skin, White Masks, nobody is immune to the effects of racist colonialism, even including himself. Within the colonised hospital, his efforts to speak with an elderly female patient in pursuit of a diagnosis end up being characterised by instances of his talking down to her and by his condescending attitude towards her; as he puts it, his slips into these behaviours are “the stigmata of a dereliction in my relations with other people”. In response, Fanon identifies that he must take responsibility for interrogating himself with regard to how he can perform his roles of psychiatrist, citizen, and self without these stigmata, in order to live authentically. He acknowledges to himself that people will ask with respect to such a task, is he an idealist? “Not at all — it is just that the others are scum,” he replies. In recognising the need for interrogation of one’s own behaviour in relation to others, Fanon pursues authenticity in human relationships with others, both as doctor and as philosopher. For him, the existentialist philosopher’s question of authenticity is not one that needs to be made relevant to a specific medical context, or to be stripped of its philosophical depth in order to be rendered acceptable to biomedicine, as the philosophy-sceptic might perhaps expect. Instead, Fanon shows that the existentialist philosopher’s question of authenticity arises quite naturally for medical professionals in their interactions with patients, with one another, and also within Fanon’s own historical situation — a contested, highly complex, colonial context. By extension, this question naturally arises for contemporary health professionals within their particular historical and social contexts.
The philosophy-sceptic might raise a third concern, namely that the history of existentialism, like the wider history of philosophy, is limited in terms of its relevance by virtue of its historical nature. This isn’t an unusual view: several philosophers have espoused such a view of philosophy as historical, and thus as limited with respect to contemporary and future problem-solving. For instance, Hegel suggests in his Preface to the Philosophy of Right that philosophy seems to come too late to shape the future, “to teach the world what it ought to be” — philosophy, he says, “always comes too late”. In a world in which speed, digestion of information, and constant movement are increasingly normalised through information technology, social media, and accessible travel around the world, the historian of existential philosophy might appear only to plod, to regurgitate, and to re-tread the same old ground, rather than to offer anything much that is new. Existential questions might not therefore appear particularly valuable from the perspective of the philosophy-sceptic, other than as a form of intellectual indulgence, however engaging.
Yet here, the philosophy-sceptic relies on the unsafe assumption that philosophical thought cannot be active. In thinking, writing, and talking about ways of living that are more authentic, responsible, and free, existentialist philosophers also at the same time act on us. Like Nietzsche, black existentialist philosophers such as Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko, and Audre Lorde, didn’t merely think or reflect in the abstract on problems of injustice and on ways of exploring authenticity: they aimed to provoke us, as part of the wider project of pursuing more authentic ways of living, and of making these ways of living more accessible to others. Considered as a form of active provocation, existential philosophy is a stimulus to our critical understanding of our own and society’s values and to our consciousness of problems of injustice and specific forms of oppression, as well as to our social and physical situation in relation to these problems. Existential philosophy is not simply reactive, because it is not simply a reflection on the past — it is also a stimulus to action in direct response to contemporary problems. As such, it has an important capacity to shape the future.