The Existential stance

Call the existential stance the way of considering the world where each thing is just this thing, here and now.  Each thing is incommunicable, particular, and is no broader than its history and its past. The existential stance is particularly easy to apply to loved things, or to odd and unique things. It is this stance toward the world that Hopkins praises in Pied Beauty

In this stance objects become incapable of entering into systems of thought. We have sensations in our body and histories in our intellect, but to enter into a discursive system breaks the existential trance. A discursive system requires that we see types, as opposed to the peculiar thing here and now. For example, to take some chemical in an experiment as this one here and now would make the experiment impossible. One could not draw a conclusion from whatever happened.

In this stance, things become largely ineffable. For example, to see the peculiar way in which a door handle has been rubbed and worn from repeated handlings has no particular name, and the sensation I have putting my hand on the table has only a general description using words that I could have used in infinitely other descriptions. The one exception to this is the proper name. My wife is the only Jessica, since all the other uses of that name are equivocal. Because of this, the existential stance develops in a way proper to it in interpersonal relations, and in the person’s own recognition of himself as a person – as in morality and politics. But though the existential stance forces itself on us in an unavoidable way in the personal, the personal is really a particular modality of the existential stance.

Though the existential stance makes the world ineffable and incapable of giving rise to a science or discursive system, it is nevertheless completely ridiculous to say that it shows us nothing real. It’s reality is beyond question. In fact, within  the existential stance it’s hard to escape the thought that this alone is what is real.

There is a long history of fearing the existential stance. Plato accused Heraclitus of saying something difficult and monstrous in thinking that one could not step in the same river twice; Aristotle was even more dramatic in seeing Heraclitus as only one significant moment in a collapse to complete intellectual corruption (we’ll end up like Cratylus, being able to do no more than point!) Both argued, not without reason, that we have to flee from the horrible idea that things are just this – reality must rather be logos. Maybe it’s a separated logos, maybe its a logos in things, but that has to be the real. The river that doesn’t flow is more real than the one that does. The reason for this is pretty straightforward: the absolute cannot admit of multiple approaches that are both concrete and total: If they are multiple, they can only be partial. But I’m a Trinitarian and so am not committed to ideas like this.


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