Affectivity in existentialist philosophy

Since fully covering such a topic in the short space imparted to this paper is an impossible task, I have chosen to focus on three philosophers: Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre. Of the three, only the latter was undoubtedly an existentialist ⎯ Heidegger explicitly rejected the categorisation (in the Letter on Humanism), and there is disagreement among commentators about Nietzsche’s status1. However, they have two major common points which justify my focusing on them: firstly, they uphold the primacy of existence over essence. Against the rationalist trend prevalent until the end of the XVIIIth Century, which saw human nature as determined a priori (as rational), all three authors consider human beings as living, self-interpreting entities, whose understanding of themselves is dependent on specific cultural and historical conditions. Given that this self-understanding is taken as constitutive of what it means to be human, it becomes impossible to define the essence of man independently of (let alone prior to) his existence. Secondly (and consequently), they reject the idea that philosophy can start from the study of man as a detached, disembodied consciousness primarily bent on knowing the world ⎯ or even that such a consciousness exists, except as a fiction propagated by rationalism2. Man is viewed as an embodied being, whose reason and cognitive powers are only the visible part of a much deeper and wider engagement with the world. In turn, this rejection of the primacy of rationality and of consciousness explains the central part played by affectivity in our three authors’ works. In all its forms3, affectivity is strongly tied to the body (although existentialist thinkers hold that it is neither identical to nor determined by physical reactions4): once the importance of embodiment has been recognised, an analysis of affectivity becomes necessary to understand the ways in which human beings relate both to themselves and to the world. Whereas the rationalist tradition mostly rejected affectivity5, either on moral grounds (as emotions interfere with self-mastery) or for epistemological reasons (because they cloud the clarity of mind supposedly required by knowledge), Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre insist on rehabilitating it, mostly for two reasons: firstly, as it is constitutive of what it means to be human, affectivity just cannot be set aside ⎯ so the rationalist ideal to do away with emotions is unmasked as an illusion, the roots of which need to be investigated..
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