Existentialism, psychoanalysis … and the tragedy of life

An essay on The New Existentialists suggests why ideas like existentialism and psychoanalysis — once mainstayes of Western culture — suddenly fell out of favor.  

Existentialism and psychoanalysis both view human life as containing tragic elements and hard limits — we are free, but we can’t have everything we want.  According to Carlo Strenger, of Tel Aviv University:   “The tragic dimension (of life) is no longer popular in our culture that perpetuates the myth of ‘just-do-it,’ and repeats the mantra that happiness is a birthright.”

As long as our culture denies life’s tragic elements, as long as our science refuses to acknowledge that there may be any limits to our eventual mastery over life (we’ll eventually develope Artificial Intelligencewe’ll eventually understand how “mind” reduces to “brain chemicals” … we’ll eventually prolong human life indefinitely and download our consciousness and reach “the singularity” and all you have to do is click your ruby slippers together three times and believe …) then philosophies that teach us how to live with and through the human condition – however true and useful – will seem out of touch with a culture of Hollywood endings.

That’s okay, though:  it’s okay to be out of touch if you’re right.  Just as importantly, Strenger thinks an appreciation of life’s tragic elements are making a comeback.  After all:  however in denial our culture might be, we have to life our lives as individual humans who grow, age, love, imagine … and die.  The new existentialism isn’t just about coping:  it’s about discovering awe and wonder and meaning throughout that process.  

It’s a better offer, and that is coming to be recognized, both in essays like this one and in mainstream psychology, such as Bruce Wampold’s review of Existential-Integrative Therapy (PDF), in which he notes that existential principles may very well form the basis of all effective psychological treatments.  

This is very good news.  Who wants to live with their head in the sand?


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