Sartre’s ghost and the corpse of God

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In this book, existentialism means the stance that meaningness is subjective. In contrast, eternalism and nihilism both assume that meaningness must be objective.

Existentialists also say that for meaning to be “authentic,” it must be a purely individual creation. Meaning should be a perfectly free choice, made after you have thrown off all cultural assumptions and social pressures. That is not actually possible, and existentialism collapses into nihilism if you seriously attempt it.

The complete stance is that eternalism, nihilism, and existentialism are all equally wrong. Existentialism is a mere muddled middle: an attempt at compromise between eternalism and nihilism that fails because it shares with them an underlying metaphysical assumption. The assumption is that meanings can be localized inside things. Eternalism supposes the meaning of an object is inherent in it (and external to us), so it is objective. Nihilism (correctly) points out that meanings cannot be inherent, and (wrongly) concludes that they cannot exist.

Existentialism supposes the meaning lives inside your head (so it is subjective, internal, and individual). This is also wrong. I will explain later why meanings logically can’t be subjective. They also can’t be individual: they are inherently social. Also, we don’t have perfectly free will to choose meanings. We are constrained by, and unavoidably depend upon, biology and society and culture.

If you try to maintain the illusion that existentialism is possible, you will probably end up adopting the stance of True Self—an idealized ego that would have the capacity to make an individual judgement. You are also likely to make the quest to find your personal meanings into a mission. These hopeful fantasies tend toward eternalism—which can make existentialism attractive. However, both these confused stances are harmful and mistaken.

Many intelligent people nowadays recognize that meanings cannot be objective, and commit to the existentialist stance. Some know the history, and call themselves existentialists. But existentialism conclusively failed half a century ago, so the word sounds quaint and dated, and most people who adopt it now don’t realize that’s what they are doing. Many think they’ve invented a clever personal philosophy—with no clue why it won’t work.

If you seriously attempt existentialism, you will fail. You cannot create your own meanings. If you take that failure seriously, and analyze what went wrong, you may recognize that subjective meanings are impossible. Then—since objective meanings are also clearly impossible—you will end up in nihilism.

The way out is to recognize that meaningness is neither subjective nor objective. It is a collaborative accomplishment of dynamic interaction. One might say that it lives in the space-between subject and object; or that it pervades the situation in which it manifests, including both subject and object. But these metaphors are misleading; meanings simply don’t have locations.